Elements of Composition
The next series of modules will address 15 guidelines on composition, starting with the most important of all —
Clearly Establish Your Objectives
1. First, clearly establish your objectives and hold to them throughout the production.
Your objectives in doing a production may be
anything from creating an experience of pure escapism to doing a
treatise on spiritual enlightenment.
Good writers, producers, directors, and editors know the purpose of each and every shot.
"I couldn't resist it, it was such a pretty
shot," is not a legitimate reason for including an extraneous scene in
a production — no matter how pretty or interesting it is. It will
either slow down the pace of the production or confuse your audience by
suggesting that the shot carries some special meaning that they need to
keep in mind -- or it will do both.
Slow = Boring
And speaking of slowing things down, "slow" is commonly associated with "boring" — excuse enough to switch the channel to try to find something more engaging. And, with dozens of TV channels to choose from, there's real competition for viewer attention.
In either case they will probably quickly consider other options.
In order to stay competitive (i.e., hold an audience) programs now feature faster cutting, greater and more frequent emotional swings, faster-moving and richer story lines, exotic locations and...
...those two ingredients that are always relied upon to hold
interest: regular dips into violence (or the threat of violence) and sex (or at least the possibility of sex).
This brings us to an important maxim:
"But," the question is often asked, "Isn't good production always good production, no matter how much time passes?"
Citizen Kane is considered by many film historians to be this country's greatest film. In terms of production techniques it was far ahead of its time.
But, now, after a few decades, its
production techniques are so behind the times that it's difficult
to get a group of average people to sit through this film.
Depicting Emotional States
Videographers and filmmakers find it challenging to effectively convey emotional states.
For example, quick, seemingly unrelated scenes of stalled city traffic, lines of people pushing through subway turnstiles, and shots of people jamming escalators might be important in establishing a frenzied state of mind in a character trying to cope with life in the city.
But a close-up of "a darling little girl sitting on a bench" in this sequence would not only leave the audience wondering what her role was, but it would probably mislead them into believing that there is a relationship between her and the central story line.
Viewers assume that every shot, gesture, and word of dialogue
in a production is there to further the central idea. Thus, each shot you
use should contribute to the story or idea you are trying to convey.
Strive for a Feeling of Unity
2. Strive for a feeling of unity. If a good film or prize-winning photo is studied, it's generally evident that the elements in the shot have been selected or arranged so they "pull together" to support the basic idea.
When the elements of a shot combine to support a basic visual statement, the shot is said to have unity.
The concept of unity applies to such things as lighting, color, wardrobes, sets, and settings.
For example, you might decide to use muted colors to create a certain atmosphere. Or, you may want to
create a specific dramatic feeling by using low-key lighting with large shadow
areas, together with settings
that contain earthy colors and predominant textures.
Compose Around a
Single Center of Interest
3. The third guideline applies to individual scenes: compose scenes around a single center of interest.
Multiple centers of interest may work in three-ring circuses where viewers are able to fully shift their interest from one event to another. But competing centers of interest within a single visual frame weaken, divide, and confuse meaning.
An effective written statement should be cast around a central idea and be swept clean of anything that does not support, explain, or in some way add to that idea.
Consider this "sentence": "Man speaking on phone, strange painting on the wall, coat rack behind his head, interesting brass bookends on desk, sound of motorcycle going by, woman moving in background...."
Although we would laugh at such a "sentence," some videographers create visual statements (shots) that include such unrelated and confusing elements.
We are not suggesting that you eliminate everything except the center of interest, just whatever does not in some way support (or at least, does not detract from) the central idea being presented.
A scene may, in fact, be cluttered with objects and people, as, for example, an establishing shot of a person working in a busy newsroom.
But each of the things should fit in and belong, and nothing should "upstage" the intended center of interest.
Selective Focus to the Rescue
Part of the "film look" that many people like centers on selective focus, or bokeh which we covered in an earlier module.
Early film stocks were not highly sensitive to light and lenses had to be used at relatively wide apertures (f-stops) to attain sufficient exposure.
This was fortunate in a way. By focusing on the key element in each shot and throwing those in front and behind that area out of focus, audiences were immediately led to the scene's center of interest and not distracted by anything else.
Even with today's high-speed film emulsions directors of photography often strive to retain the selective focus effect by shooting under low light levels and using wide lens apertures.
The same principles that have worked so well in film can also be used in video.
Note how foreground and background elements here have been thrown out of focus so that attention will center on the young woman.
This level of image control takes extra planning with today's highly sensitive video cameras because the auto-iris circuit can adjust the f-stop to an aperture that brings both the foreground and background into focus.
To make use of the creative
control inherent in selective focus, high shutter speeds, neutral
density filters, or lighting control must be used.
Where There Is Light...
The eye is drawn to the brighter areas of a scene.
This means that the prudent use
of lighting can be a composition tool, in this case to emphasize
important scenic elements and to de-emphasize others. We'll see
more examples of this in the modules on lighting.
Shifting the Center of Interest
In static composition scenes maintain a primary center of interest; in dynamic composition centers of interest can change with time.
Movement can be used to shift attention. Although our eye may be dwelling on the scene's center of interest, it will quickly be drawn to movement in a secondary area of the picture. Someone entering the scene is an example.
As we noted in an earlier module, we can also force the audience to shift their attention through the technique of
rack focus, or changing the focus of the lens from one object to another.
Observe Proper Subject Placement
4. The fourth general guideline for composition is:
observe proper subject placement.
This often weakens the composition.
Rule of Thirds
Except possibly for people looking directly at the camera, it's often best to place the center of interest near one of the points indicated by the rule of thirds.
In the rule of thirds the total image area is divided vertically and horizontally into three equal sections.
Although it's often desirable to place the center of interest somewhere along the two horizontal and two vertical lines, generally composition is even stronger if the center of interest falls near one of the four cross-points illustrated in the photo on the right below.
A few still cameras even have the rule of thirds guidelines visible in their viewfinders.
Note that both photos above have centers of interest consistent with the rule of thirds.
Here are two more examples.
But, remember, we are speaking of a rule of thirds, not law of thirds. The rule of thirds is only a guideline — something that should be considered while composing a scene. Although composition is often stronger using the rule of thirds, many scenes (see below) "work" that do not follow this guideline.
Horizontal and Vertical Lines
snapshooters also typically go to some effort to make sure that horizon
lines are perfectly centered in the middle of the frame. This also
weakens composition by splitting the frame into two equal halves.
In the same way, vertical lines shouldn't divide the frame into two equal parts. From the rule of thirds we can see that it's generally best to place a dominant vertical line either one-third or two-thirds of the way across the frame.
It's also generally a good idea to break up or intersect dominant, unbroken lines with some scenic element. Otherwise, the scene may seem divided.
A horizon can be broken by an object in the foreground. Often, this can be done by simply moving the camera slightly.
A vertical line can be interrupted by something as simple as a tree branch.
Although the horizon line is in the center of the frame in this picture, the masts of the boats break it up and keep it from dividing the frame in half.
Even so, when possible, it's generally more desirable to follow
the rule of thirds and put the horizon line in the top third or lower third
of a frame.
Leading the Subject
Generally, when a subject is moving in a particular direction, space is provided at the side of the frame for the subject(s) to "move into."
This is referred to as leading the subject. In a close-up (see below on the right) we might refer to it as "looking room."
Note that in the photo on the left above that space is allowed for the subjects to "walk into." In the photo on the right above "looking space" is provided on the left side of the frame.
The required reading for this module relates to an important social issue: television production and violence.
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