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7 Rules for Better Cinematic Framing and Composition

A quick refresher on how to get the look(s) you want when shooting a film
Photo of composition rules

When it comes to filmmaking, it never hurts to brush up on the basics from time to time. Although cinematic framing and composition are some of the first things you learn as a novice filmmaker, we find it useful to have a little refresher every few years.

The ways in which you frame your shots can make a big difference in overall storytelling and give your viewers visual clues about what elements are most important within a frame. Watch the video at the bottom of this story from Kellan Reck to see the following seven “golden rules” of framing and composition explained and demonstrated.

#1 Rule of Thirds

This is one of the first things you will learn in a film class. It refers to the compositional guidelines that break your frame down into thirds—two horizontal lines and two vertical lines that cross the frame into nine smaller frames and create four cross lines. Those cross lines end up being an excellent area to place your subject in frame because the human eye is naturally drawn to them. Positioning important subjects on the crosslines is an easy way to quickly enhance your composition when shooting. The majority of modern cameras have a setting that allows you to actually place those gridlines over the LCD monitor, which makes composing with them in mind a breeze.

#2 Leading Lines

Leading lines refer to the visual pathways within the environment you are shooting. Essentially as a filmmaker when you use this framing technique you are searching for the natural lines that might be present at your location—fences, buildings and roads are all examples of environmental elements that can be used as a leading line frame. When done correctly a leading line will allow your viewer to home in on the subject that is most important in the frame. Alternatively, you can use chaotic lines to confuse the viewer or signal that a main character in the film is dealing with some kind of confusion.

#3 Balance

It’s important to find balance within your frames. It’s used pretty regularly when we see a shot of two characters having an intense conversion in a scene—where one character will be on the left side of the frame and the other on the right (typically those characters will be placed right at the crosslines that we discussed when using the rule of thirds). Ultimately a well-balanced frame makes something much easier to watch. Keep a balanced frame in mind when shooting interviews or b-roll for your videos as well. When filming an interview remember to keep a nice amount of headroom above your subject to help keep the frame looking balanced. An easy trick is to have your interview subject’s eyes fall on the top line on your rule of thirds grid. Pay attention to looking room as well—this refers to the area which your subject is looking, if a subject is looking off to the side, make sure their eye line is aimed at the larger part of the frame.

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#4 Symmetry

Symmetry is closely related to having balanced shots. It refers to having both sides of your frame matching one another—it pops up all the time in Wes Anderson’s films—but it’s also a technique that is regularly used by documentary filmmakers. Sometimes all it takes to make a beautifully symmetrical shot is making slight adjustments to where you are physically placing your camera.

#5 Depth

Depth is a great tool for providing more emphasis to your subject. The easiest way to accomplish this is by adjusting the aperture on your camera’s lens. A wide open aperture will create a very shallow depth of field: whatever is close to the camera lens will be in focus, while background elements will be out of focus. With a higher aperture you will be able to have foreground and background elements in a scene in focus.

Choose the technique that makes sense with your story: a shallow depth of field will be best for creating emphasis on a main character, while a less shallow depth of field will work better if you are trying to place your character in a larger context of something. You can use this technique in documentary storytelling as well. For example, when shooting an interview, you will want to pull your subject away from the wall, rather than placing them right next to it, to create more depth and allow the viewer to more easily focus on what the interview subject is saying.

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#6 Frame within a Frame

This technique is exactly what it sounds like and refers to using elements within a frame to help frame the subject that you are shooting. Open windows or doors are often used with this particular technique, but you can get more creative too. Like the other techniques that we’ve discussed this one helps add emphasis to your subject, but in a bit more of an out of the box way.

#7 Subject Emphasis

The best filmmakers combine a variety of the previously discussed techniques into a single frame to accomplish subject emphasis in a creative way. Using these compositional tips make it easier to follow the story and provide visual cues to our audience about what is the most important thing happening on screen at any given moment. Ultimately all leading lines, use of depth, frames within frames, rule of thirds and symmetrical, balanced shots should lead to subject emphasis.

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