While movie audiences focus on storytelling and emotional stakes, they are also subconsciously affected by cinematic composition. This concept, also called film composition or video composition, is the principle of placing key images in just the right part of a film frame.
The importance of video composition when shooting a film
What is video composition?
At its core, film and video composition is the arrangement of visual information within a camera frame. Directors deliberately compose the frame in a way that controls the narrative and induces viewers to pay attention to certain characters or points of interest in a scene.
The reasons a director or cinematography may compose a shot in a certain way are many and varied, including:
- To tell a story. As a director (or cinematographer or editor), you have immense power over your viewer’s eyes and attention. You can steer them toward important information through the use of leading lines, depth of field, the rule of thirds, or other film composition techniques.
- To mimic the real world. The real world is a messy, asymmetrical place. In many cases, filmmakers want to mimic this so that audiences feel immersed in the world onscreen. Directors and cinematographers go through great lengths to compose shots to show quirks of our own space. On the other hand, some directors do just the opposite by making their scenes seem too perfect or overly composed in an attempt to make the audience feel unsettled.
- To reveal perspective and emotions. When it comes to shaping characters and conveying emotion, the actors aren’t the only ones on set doing the heavy lifting. The framing, lighting, and perspective of a film shot can reveal so much about a character’s emotions and inner life. For instance, backlighting a character can create a glow around their body while leaving their face comparatively dark; this sometimes implies otherworldliness. Staging a character where their torso is facing one way and their head faces another can suggest ulterior motives—sometimes even outright dishonesty. Seasoned directors quickly learn their shot compositions can add so much subtext to the words on a screenwriter’s script.
7 basic rules of video composition
Any auteur is liable to quibble with the notion of mandatory rules, yet most directors and cinematographers abide by a few composition guidelines to some degree. As you study the art of composition in cinematography, keep the following rules in mind.
- Asymmetry feels more natural than symmetry. Real-life is rarely symmetrical. Knowing this, many filmmakers intentionally apply asymmetry to their shot composition. They use techniques like the rule of thirds to keep key characters out of the dead center of a frame. Some directors do just the opposite and use symmetry to their advantage. Wes Anderson famously uses symmetry when framing shots throughout his films to give them an air of whimsy or fantasy.
- Guide the viewer with leading lines. One of the key rules of composition is to lead your viewer using on-screen vertical and horizontal lines. The lines of a building or staircase in the scene, or the focus of a subject’s eyes, can steer viewers toward important visual information on the screen. These imaginary lines are a subtle yet effective way to steer a user’s viewing experience.
- Stage your actors using three-dimensional depth. Staging is one of the foundational elements of cinematography. Position your actors and set pieces in such a way that you show three-dimensional depth in your shot compositions. In a scene with multiple actors, try staging your shot with several actors (usually your leads) in the foreground, a few selected people in the far background (sometimes these are extras or “background actors”), and additional actors in between. This will add three-dimensional texture to your on-screen photography.
- Adjust depth of field with a variety of camera lenses. The other component to three-dimensional depth involves camerawork. Depth of field refers to the section of your camera frame that appears in focus. In a shallow depth of field, only one part of the image is in focus and the rest has an intentional blur. A wide depth of field keeps more objects in focus, including people and objects in the background. Most visually appealing films and videos use multiple depths of field to keep the cinematography fresh and interesting. Placing one part of the screen in sharp focus while blurring other parts will instantly draw your viewer’s attention to important visual details. It also adds intrigue to your narrative—if everything is always in focus, the film can end up looking more like a training video than a movie. Make depth of focus an artistic decision, not just a technical one.
- Be mindful of headroom. You rarely want too much, or too little space between a subject’s head and the top of the frame. If the space between the top of a head and the top of a frame isn’t properly aligned, the shot will look like a mistake, unless it has a specific storytelling or artistic purpose (like creating a sense of claustrophobia or vacuous space).
- Vary your shot selection. Directors and cinematographers have a deep grab bag of shots to choose from. These include establishing shots (usually showing a setting with no principal actors), medium shots (showing a subject’s full body but little background content), close shots (showing close-ups on a person’s upper body or face, over-the-shoulder shots (showing the back of a person’s head and shoulder as they face the focal subject), and many more. Vary your shot selection in order to offer the viewer an array of perspectives. This variety keeps the film visually interesting, but it also can enhance individual characters. Whether the viewer realizes it or not, these shots often represent the perspectives of characters on screen. We can gain a window into these characters’ worlds by showing action from their point of view.
- Remember the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds (explained in depth below) prevents you from creating unnaturally symmetrical images, which can seem overly staged and distracting. The goal of most films is to immerse the audience, and positioning your subjects off-center (which the rule of thirds facilitates) can help you in this regard.
How to use the rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is a shot framing technique that divides up a film image like a tic-tac-toe board with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines. Here is how to do it.
- Divide your screen using vertical and horizontal lines. Use imaginary lines to divide your image into equal thirds horizontally and vertically. Specifically, you will want two parallel horizontal lines, and two parallel vertical lines.
- Note the points of intersection. Your vertical and horizontal lines will intersect at four points near the center of the image, but not right at the center. Take note of these points.
- Position important subject matter at these points of intersection. To apply the rule of thirds, place the most important visuals in your shot in one of these four points of intersection. Most notably the rule applies to subjects’ faces or, more specifically, subjects’ eyes—since that’s where your viewer will naturally focus their attention.
- Break the rule as necessary. Even when filmmaking rules apply to most test cases, they should not be mistaken for universal laws. You may find yourself breaking the rule of thirds when your camera moves in a tracking shot. You may want to perfectly center your subject’s face, like if they’re on a video chat or gazing into a security camera. Use your intuition and only apply the rule of thirds if it truly suits your storytelling.
4 potential ways to compose a shot
If you’re seeking inspiration for composing shots for your film or video project, use these templates as touchpoints.
- Close-up, with side lighting. This type of shot composition implies a first-person point of view. It suggests intimacy and a natural setting. Try applying the rule of thirds rather than centering a person’s face right in the middle of the frame. Use this kind of shot when you want to show a character from a very neutral perspective, without lurking subtext.
- Over-the-shoulder, medium shot. Because this type of shot shows a person in the foreground, it places the viewer smack in the middle of the scene. It breaks the proverbial “fourth wall” because it feels like you, the viewer, are standing right behind a character. Storytelling can feel more visceral and urgent when you use this kind of shot.
- An establishing shot that suddenly focuses. If you start a scene with a wide establishing shot with a wide depth of field, and then suddenly focus on one object using a shallow depth of field, you can instantly draw your viewer’s attention to something. This technique is sometimes used in suspense films to point out a suspicious person or object in the crowd. Sudden shallow focus can also be used to signal the arrival of a new character.
- Leading lines that point in a diagonal direction. Add a new dimension to your shot list by featuring leading lines that point diagonally, either to the upper corner or lower corner of your shot. Remember that leading lines can be literal—like a road or a stairway banister—or they can be implied, like the imaginary lines that extend from a subject’s eyes.
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