First, you must know the rules before you break them. It’s something that most film professors, from introductory classes to the graduate level, will tell their students. It’s well worn advice, to be sure, but there is truth in it, and many novice filmmakers find it out the hard way.
It is in composition - the arrangement of everything within the frame - that these words ring especially true. It is easy to get off track regarding composition as a new or an independent filmmaker. With lower budgets often comes the necessary evil to focus on some things at the expense of others.
In indie filmmaking, the director, who is also often the screenwriter, will focus primarily on the actors, their performances, and the script, not to the exclusion of the technical aspects, but ultimately it can have a negative impact on the look of the film. The director must work with the director of photography (DP), if there is one, on how to best shoot the movie and make sure equal attention is given to how the movie looks. The most important concept in composition and framing is the rule of thirds. To achieve this effect, draw four lines that divide the frame horizontally and vertically into thirds. Objects are then placed within these lines to achieve balance and interest to the viewer. Think back to “Star Wars,” (Gilbert Taylor, DP) and how effectively George Lucas creates the feeling of distance and longing as Luke (Mark Hamill) stares out at the two moons.
Film is different from still photography and paintings, of course, but you can take almost any still frame from a film and apply the rule of thirds to it. Most directors and DPs, whether consciously or unconsciously, will establish balance within the frame. It may seem like a boring proposition, and of course there are always times to have an unbalanced frame, but a filmmaker can make balance dynamic.
One of the most iconic images from Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" (Andrzej Sekula, cinematographer) is Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta), after they miraculously escape getting shot in the apartment, turning, almost in unison, side by side, and raising their guns. By positioning the two in the middle of the frame, with equal distance on either side of the actors to the edge of the frame, Tarantino has used composition of the frame to create tension and a sense of foreboding.
Getting the desired effect of every scene includes several facets of composition. Incorporating images into the frame by the rule of thirds is a good building block. Afterwards, it comes down to what you want to put in that frame now that you know what the frame consists of and how people are going to be viewing it.
Novice and indie filmmakers often focus on only the foreground images within the frame, making it seem as if, for example, if there are two people talking in the scene, this is the only part of the world that exists; there is no context for what is happening.
In Sam Peckinpah’s “The Getaway,” (Lucien Ballard, cinematographer) the director uses composition and framing to evoke every emotion Carter “Doc” McCoy (Steve McQueen) and Carol (Ali McGraw) are feeling. Peckinpah used location filming to his advantage for several key scenes. When Doc and Carol are in the train station, and it becomes clear she has lost the suitcase containing $500,000, their dialogue is spoken against a sea of faces, ever shifting, and it gives the viewer the sense that everything is spinning out of control. It feels claustrophobic and chaotic, and you sympathize with Carol and her growing uneasiness and paranoia.
Another classic example of background imagery is Peckinpah’s use of a garbage dump. It’s a make or break scene in the movie, where Doc and Carol decide whether they’re going to stay together or split up. They share a lonely walk along the ridge of the dump, while trucks continue to dump garbage into the vast space, with swirling wind and trash blowing everywhere. The intimate dialogue between the two characters is juxtaposed against the massive amounts of garbage and the sounds of machinery.
Color is another important design characteristic that works with composition. Anything towards red on the spectrum is a “hot” color, anything towards blue is a “cool” color, and browns and greens are earth tones, which have a calming effect.
In the original “Star Wars” trilogy, each movie has a feel to it by way of a color. “Star Wars: A New Hope” is washed out in a harsh brown until we get to the imperial cruiser, which is a world of stark blacks and whites. “The Empire Strikes Back” (Peter Suschitzky, DP) begins on the ice planet Hoth, where everything is covered in white. And “Return of the Jedi” (Alan Hume, DP) is set mostly in the forests on the moon of Endor, where greens and browns dominate.
It may seem like a cheap technique, but Lucas, Irvin Kershner (director of “Empire"), and Richard Marquand (director of “Jedi”) used these color schemes to great effect. It gave the audience an immediate sense of location and emotion. It was no fluke that Darth Vader was dressed completely in black while the thousands of storm troopers were in white. Putting a contrasting color against a dominant color is a way to get the viewer’s attention and draw the eye in.
Composition is also dictated by what’s not in the frame as well. Unplanned empty space may be disastrous to the frame; carefully planned empty space can achieve a desired effect. Just as the mind wants to create balance when it sees objects, it also is expecting the empty space to be filled. This creates tension, and is up to the director and DP how to resolve the issue.
Horror films often use empty space, and the expectations of filling it, to either frustrate the viewer (and continue the suspense) or deliver a shock. How many times in John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (Dean Cundey, DP) does he use the empty, black space to not have Michael Myers pop up? To keep the audience off guard, he then has the killer show in a more traditionally staged scene.
The composition of a scene is also dictated by how a filmmaker chooses to shoot the scene, and with what lens is on the camera. By staging a scene where an object in the foreground or background takes on a seeming amount of importance, and it draws the eye in, a filmmaker can achieve a desired result.
This also works by focusing or un-focusing the camera lens to create tension or a dissonance within the scene. By placing people or objects in unexpected places, and with varied amounts of focus, you’re playing with the balance of composition (a little bit of rule breaking, even though there is most likely internal balance).
Director Antoine Fuqua uses this to great effect in “Training Day” (Mauro Fiore, DP). There’s a scene when Denzel Washington as Alonzo Harris opens a door and reveals Sara (Eva Mendes) on the bed behind him, slightly out of focus. We’re drawn to Washington because his head takes up most of the frame in the foreground, but the forced perspective draws the eye back to Mendes on the bed, sitting with a pile of money.
Whereas composition is the key to balance in the frame, it’s also the key to balancing the movie. Filmmaking is a visual medium, which means how the director and DP choose to fill the frame takes on a lot of importance. A visually stunning movie is nothing without a great script, and a great script will just lie there unless it’s brought to life on screen.