Intro to Composition and Cinematography

Disclaimer: These are not ‘rules’ that you have to follow religiously. They are conventions; guidelines to help your work demonstrate that you know what you are doing. Once you have demonstrated that you understand these conventions, you can use and bend the expectations of these techniques to create visually impactful or unsettling images.

Framing

The Quest for Balance

Composition is about framing the subject in a way that feels ‘balanced’ with other subjects, the scene, and negative space. There are many guidelines here that will help you achieve a pleasant, conventional composition. Many great images can be created outside the boundaries of convention, but then you will be much more up to the mercy of viewer subjectivity.

The Rule of Thirds

This ‘rule’ of composition posits that an image divided vertically into thirds and horizontally into thirds (creating nine equal parts) is visually appealing.

The subject should be placed on one of the four intersecting points.

Theoretically, the rule of thirds creates a sense of balance within the frame, with the subject off to one side and substantial negative space (or another subject) on the other side.

The rule of thirds is best used when there are two ‘subjects’ of concentration. Either within a single frame, or through an exchange sequence, such as an over-the-shoulder (OTS) exchange, which is how two-person conversations are often represented in film.

The subjects can be a character, object, background (the horizon), or other point of interest.

Symmetry (and Asymmetry)

Symmetry is when the composition is (mostly) mirrored from right-to-left, or less frequently from top-to-bottom. Single subjects are usually center framed.

  • Visually appealing.

  • Unnatural.

  • Can become predictable.

  • Difficult to execute properly.

Asymmetry is simply a lack of symmetry.

  • Natural.

  • Can be more complex, offering organic, interesting compositions.

  • Can be less appealing visually if image isn’t composed with balance.

Perspective Angle

Eye Level

Placing the camera at the eye level of your subject produces a neutral effect in the viewer’s perception of the subject.

This can also help to connect the viewer with the subject.

High Angle

Placing the camera higher than your subject, and aiming down at them makes the subject seem inferior or compromised to the viewer. This is a subconscious association related to the idea of adult humans looking down at children.

Depending on the severity of the angle, this might also be called:

  • Bird’s Eye View

  • Overhead (God Angle)

Low Angle

Placing the camera below the subject, and aiming up at them makes the subject appear dominant, powerful, or in control. This is the inverse of the high angle. This is another subconscious associated related to your perspective as a children, looking up at adults.

This might also be called:

  • Worm’s Eye View

Dutch Angle

This is where the shot isn’t level with the horizon. This creates a feeling of imbalance, chaos, and disorder in the viewer.

Frame Room

Headroom

This is the space between the subject’s head and the top edge of the frame.

Headroom is subject to taste, but some headroom gives your viewer a sense of comfort with the frame. Too little can induce a feeling of anxiety and claustrophobia. Too much can feel… awkward.

To what extent do we accommodate tall hair?

Lead Room

This is room provided in the direction that your subject is looking or moving, and is otherwise known as nose room or look room.

Providing lead room for your subject gives your viewer comfort, in that they can see what is ahead of the subject. This is especially true if your subject is literally moving. If they are moving toward the left of frame, then give them space on that side of the frame as you pan or dolly alongside them.

Framing your subject against the frame (giving them no lead room) makes the viewer anxious because we don’t know what is just outside the frame.

Foot room

This is space provided between your subject’s feet and the bottom of the frame.

It’s visually awkward to frame below the waist (the knee, especially) without including the feet.

Depth-of-Field

Shallow

This is when the lens optically has a small ‘circle of confusion,’ creating an effect where little of the frame along the z-axis is actually in focus.

The depth-of-field barely contains your subject, or perhaps only contains part of your subject.

This can serve several different narrative and emotive purposes.

  • It might give the sense of a focused perspective. Especially when preceded by a shot of the subject looking at something.

  • It could create an ethereal, dreamlike feeling to the clip.

  • It might represent a feeling of loneliness or disconnectedness of the subject.

This can be problematic, if critical focus is important to you.

Deep

This is when a lot of the z-axis is in focus.

The depth-of-field will contain your subject and much or all of the background.

Emotive uses are limited…

  • Creates a connection between the subject and the scene.

…but practical purposes should be apparent.

  • It’s easier to achieve focus on your subject, even if they are moving.

Leading Lines

This concept is the use of lines within the frame to lead the viewer’s eye to the subject.

Lines are often created by corners, lights, power lines, roads, train tracks, etc.

Shot Types

Extreme Wide Shot, or Extreme Long Shot (EWS, ELS)

The Extreme Wide Shot focuses on the landscape of the scene. It works to orient the viewer to the type of world or scene we are in.

The subject is very small in the scene, if they can be seen at all.

(Wide Shot vs Long Shot)

This is a personal definition, but it bothers me that the terms are used interchangeably when wide and long, when talking focal lengths, are opposite. With this in mind, the difference between a Wide Shot and a Long Shot might be what focal length is used in making the shot.

Wide Shots magnify the foreground by using a wide angle lens.

Long Shots magnify the background by using a telephoto lens.

Wide Shot, or long shot (WS, ls)

In Wide Shots and Long Shots, the subject is fully contained within the frame. There is still a focus on the background scene, but the subject is large enough that some information could be conveyed as to their appearance or action.

Full Shot (FS)

In a Full Shot, the subject is shown head-to-toe.

This is often used synonymously with Wide Shot. When differentiated, a Wide Shot is wider than a Full Shot.

Medium Wide Shot (MWS)

The Medium Wide Shot shows the subject from their head to their knees. The viewer can make out more details of the subject, and perhaps some emotion.

This is often called the Cowboy Shot because it was so frequently used in the Western genre. Practically, it serves a similar purpose to the medium shot, but also allows the frame to fully contain the cowboy’s gun and holster.

Medium Shot (MS)

The Medium Shot shows the subject from their head to their waist.

This shot is closer still, allowing the viewer to make out more detail and emotion of the subject, with less of a focus on the background. It’s also still wide enough to practically follow some action.

Medium Close-Up (MCU)

The Medium Close-Up shows the subject from their head to their lower chest.

In this shot, even more emphasis is put on subject emotion and reaction, and very little, if any, on action and scene.

Close-Up Shot (CU)

The Close-Up shows the subject from their head to their collar.

There is full focus on subject emotion and reaction. This is meant to incite some sort of feeling from the viewer, one way or another. You either connect emotionally with the subject, filling you with empathy, or you look right into the eyes of the bad guy, fueling your hatred for them.

Extreme Close-Up (ECU or XCU)

The Extreme Close-Up shows only part of the subject’s face. Perhaps we see only their eyes, or only their mouth. We might see both, but framed in such a way that the frame cuts off right above their eyes and below their mouth.

This is a stylized, emotional shot. We are intimately close to the subject.

Establishing Shot (EST)

The Establishing Shot is any kind of shot that quickly orients the viewer to where we are.

Establishing Shots are usually Wide Shots, but can be any shot type.

The Establishing Shot can even be a Detail Shot, if that detail makes it apparent to the viewer where we are.

Insert (Detail) Shot

The Insert Shot is any sort that is very tight, and focuses on a detail or precise action that would be difficult or impossible to see with conventionally wider shots.

The Insert Shot is also called a Detail Shot, and there’s not much distinction between the two. If anything, the Insert Shot is part of a sequence, whereas a Detail Shot can be standalone.

These are also used as a way of showing great focus on a thing. A character might be hyper focused on a small detail, and the viewer can see what that is through a Detail Shot. Oftentimes, though, it’s simply a stylized way for a director to make the viewer focus on something.

Perspective (POV) Shot

The Perspective Shot is meant to show the viewer what a subject is seeing or experiencing. Most Perspective Shots are over-the-shoulder shots, but might just be a Reverse Shot that generally shows what the subject is looking at or reacting to.

A POV (point-of-view) shot is a type of Perspective Shot that takes the execution literally, attempting to show the viewer exactly what the subject sees.

This might be represented by an ultra-wide lens (think GoPro), or it might be represented with a more ‘normal’ focal length that’s simply meant to show what the subject is looking at or focusing on. The Detail Shot is another type of Perspective Shot.

Reverse Shot (Shot, Reverse Shot)

The Reverse Shot requires the context of another shot, which is the setup; hence ‘Shot, Reverse Shot.’

This is usually set up with a subject looking at or reacting to something. The Reverse Shot is then a Perspective Shot, Detail Shot, Over-the-Shoulder Shot, or something else that helps to inform or illuminate the setup.

Single Shot

This is the standard shot that features a single subject in the frame.

Two Shot

The Two Shot features two subjects.

They might be framed somewhat symmetrically, which gives them a sense of balance in their relationship, and helps the viewer to perceive them as equals, or as a duo.

Framing them asymmetrically can help indicate that the two subjects are not perfect equals. Perhaps they have a mentor-student relationship, or one of them dominates their relationship.

Over-the-Shoulder Shot (OTS)

The Over-the-Shoulder shot places the camera behind a character. The camera then literally shoots over the character’s shoulder to show the viewer what the character is seeing.

The Over-the-Shoulder Shot is often part of a sequence in which at least two characters participate in an exchange.

The subjects are usually framed using medium shots to close-ups. Conventionally, one shot will feature a subject framed on the left, looking right, with the other character in the foreground on the right; the following shot will feature the other subject framed on the right, looking left, with the first subject in the foreground on the left. This helps to keep the viewer oriented in the exchange. It mimics the way that we typically see an exchange between two people.

As mentioned, an Over-the-Shoulder can also be used as a Perspective Shot to show what a single character sees in the scene.

The ‘180 Degree Rule’

This is a ‘rule’ put in place to help the viewer stay oriented within the scene, whenever there are two or more main subjects. The 180-Degree Rule is named so because you stay within 180 degrees of the 360 degrees of the total space.

Basically, if you were to imagine yourself looking down at the scene from an overhead perspective, you would draw a line through your two primary subjects. Then you simply keep your camera on one side of that line. Any and all shots that have both subjects in the frame will then keep each subject on the same side of the frame, helping to keep the viewer oriented as you cut around the scene. This also helps simplify the blocking and filming process.

The Over-the-Shoulder exchange described above follows the 180-Degree Rule.

Composing an Interview

To compose a conventionally framed interview, use the Rule-of-Thirds and give your subject adequate nose room. The subject’s line of sight should follow the top (horizontal) Rule-of-Thirds guideline across the frame.

Why? How might this relate to the Over-the-Shoulder Shot?

The camera’s height should be placed at the subject’s eye level for objectivity (meaning that the viewer perceives the subject without the camera angle influencing the viewer’s perception). You can apply what we’ve learned about camera angles to influence the viewer’s perception of the subject, but be careful in doing this, as you might be overstepping your ethical boundaries as a documentarian. If anything, it’s better to use a low camera angle to empower your subject than the other way around.

As for shot type, interviews are usually Medium Shots to Close-Ups.

In composing the frame, don’t forget to consider your background.

  • Where are the leading lines?

  • Is there enough contrast to help your subject stand out from the background?

  • Content-wise, does the background help complement your subject or topic?

The most common and boring interview scenes are in front of black or white backgrounds. Please don’t do that.

Camera Moves

Static (Fixed) Shot

This is simply using the camera on a tripod, with it locked down so that the frame doesn’t move during the shot.

This is the most objective form of shooting. It focuses on the subjects and action, and doesn’t distract or complicate things with camera moves.

Pan

The Pan is a camera move that moves the frame along the visual x-axis.

The Pan often follows a character through the scene, or reveals a landscape.

Tilt

The Tilt moves the frame along the visual y-axis, emphasizing the height of a character or structure, or revealing information along a vertical plane.

Roll

The Roll is when the camera rotates along the z-axis. This is the least common of camera moves.

This is an animated version of the Dutch Angle. It creates an intense, unsettling feeling.

Zoom

The Zoom is an underutilized camera movement. It uses the changing magnification of focal lengths to change the shot type in a single clip.

Zooming in allows one to start with a complicated scene and focus in on one subject.

Zooming out allows the frame to move from a focused subject to a complicated or dense scene.

Focus Pull (Rack Focus)

A Focus Pull is when you change your focus point during a shot. It is also called a Rack Focus.

The camera’s focus can move from one subject to another.

This move can also be used to reveal information within a scene.

Practically, a Focus Pull can replace a ‘Shot, Reverse Shot’ sequence. Start with your focus on the subject (usually in the background) looking at something (usually in the foreground), then rack focus to what the subject was looking at.

Dolly

A camera dolly is a cart-like object that moves the camera along on some form of wheels, tracks, or rails. The term ‘Dolly’ is also frequently used as a verb to describe a camera movement that is like what is achievable with a camera dolly.

Push

A Push is when you physically move the camera toward the subject during the shot.

A Push often feels empowering to the subject.

It might also be used to reflect a kind of revelation within the subject.

Pull

A Pull is when you physically move the camera away from the subject during the shot.

A Pull often represents some type of loneliness or alienation of the subject.

Sideways Dolly

This is where the camera is pointed at a ~90-degree angle from where the dolly is moving.

A Sideways Dolly serves much of the same purpose of the pan, but perhaps is more practical given the space, or allows the camera to stay closer to the subject.

Slider

A Slider is a camera tool in which the camera moves along a rail system. It is best for achieving a Sideways Dolly move. It can also be used for limited Pushes and Pulls.

Handheld

Shoulder rig

This gives a kinetic, organic feeling.

It can help give a more intimate feeling to the sequence, helping the viewer to feel like they are there.

Depending on the severity, this can also be used to create a sense of chaos and action.

Steadicam or Gimbal

These are used as replacements for dollies and sliders, but have their own sets of pros and cons.

Pros:

  • More freedom for the frame. Steadicams and gimbals are freely maneuverable within a scene, and can turn 360 degrees without needing a complicated plan or special effects to cover dolly tracks.

  • Faster. Dolly shots might be the best looking type of shot, but it is very time consuming to reset the dolly and track after each shot. Steadicams and gimbals can quickly move from shot to shot.

  • More agile. Steadicams and gimbals can fit into tight spaces where a dolly or slider might not be able to fit at all.

Cons:

  • Dollies and sliders can deliver perfectly smooth movement take after take. Steadicams and gimbals rely on competent and talented operators to keep the shot comparably smooth.

  • Likewise, dollies and sliders can produce footage that is perfectly replicable from shot to shot, which is sometimes helpful for timing or effects. Steadicams and gimbals are subject to minor differences from take to take.

  • Steadicams need an operator to hold the camera rig, which can be a physically taxing job. Gimbals also require someone to hold the rig, but they also require batteries, which might not last the length of the shoot.

Tracking

This is when the shot follows a subject through the scene.

There are many types of tracking shots.

The camera might lead the subject (filming their face) or follow them (filming their back).

You could also track alongside them as they walk through the frame, using a dolly, slider, or Steadicam.

Jib or Crane

These tools are specialty use to show various angles and heights within a single shot. Often used as opening and/or closing shots to a scene.

Drone or Helicopter

These tools allow for sweeping establishing shots of a landscape.

Wire

This is a tool used to replicate the look and feel of a drone or helicopter shot on a smaller scale, in a way that is much safer and more controlled.

Frequently used in stadium sports like soccer or football.