As the person pressing the record button, it’s important to remember that you are the eyes of the audience. You control what they see and what they don’t see… and that’s all in how you compose each shot. And that’s a big responsibility! What makes for great compositions are when your viewers are guided through your story by the inclusion and arrangement of purposeful elements in each frame. But that’s not always easy.
A similar event framed in different ways could lead to very different responses. Something like a character’s simple head turn can make a shot go from feeling optimistic to suspenseful, even if everything else in the frame is consistent.
Let’s dig into five ways to ways you can dial in your composition and make every frame as strong as it can be.
Tip 1: Check the edges of your frame
Look at what’s happening at the edges of your frame. Or, conversely, is something entering the frame around the edges? Is something being cut off awkwardly? Even something small could potentially be distracting to audiences.
This compositional hiccup happens to the best of filmmakers — especially those working in fast-paced situations where there is only a short amount of time to perfect everything before you need to roll.
The good news is it’s often easily fixed in post, especially if the shot is a higher resolution than it’s being delivered in. All it takes is a quick scan of your edges and a small punch-in on the shot.
Here’s a great aerial frame from filmmaker Brent Foster of Foster Visuals.
Compositionally, it’s very striking: great leading lines, use of complementary colors, and rule of thirds framing. But there’s a way to make it even stronger.
Take a moment to scan the edges of frame. Notice that little yellow triangle in the top right corner of the frame?
A tiny punch-in cleans everything up and makes it appear that this tractor is completely surrounded by the field of crops with no end in sight. It’s a pretty dramatic difference for such a small adjustment in post.
Thus is the power of checking your edges to make sure that your composition is supporting the story you’re telling, and not removing your audience from it.
Next time you’re on set, take an extra second before you press record to check your edges. And when you don’t have time to do that on set, take the time in post to clean anything up.
Tip 2: First draw attention to what matters most
Audiences are generally attracted to either the brightest or darkest areas of a frame. Then, if the shot is long enough, they’ll start to look around the rest of the frame.
To guide the audience to what you want them to see, then, make the most important elements in your frame either the brightest or the darkest.
Below is a shot from Gnarly Bay. Look away from the image, then quickly look back at the frame. Chances are you saw exactly where they wanted you to see: the white sky with the hands playfully mimicking a statue.
Of course, when you’re framing your shot in the field, you can’t constantly be looking away and then back at your frame. (Well, you could, but your crew and talent may think something isn’t right.)
Here’s a trick to accomplish something similar and still look like a pro: squint. Or, if you wear glasses, lower them so you’re not looking through your lenses. Naturally, your newly out-of-focus eyes will go to the brightest or darkest parts of your image.
If after looking away and then looking back/squinting/lowering your glasses, you see that the most important element in your frame isn’t what you see first, try and adjust for it in the field.
It could mean using neutral density gels on windows to bring down the intensity of the light, adding a little kicker to dark areas of the scene, or completely re-composing the shot. This will ensure your composition is dialed in and the audience is looking exactly where you want them to look.
And just like scanning your frame’s edges, all is not lost if you have to correct for brightness levels in post — though getting into motion tracking does add significant complexity and time to the post-process.
Tip 3: Avoid shooting everything straight on
As mentioned in Brent’s example, symmetry in your compositions can be a great storytelling technique (aka, every Wes Anderson film ever). But that doesn’t mean everything you shoot needs to be shot straight on.
Another way to add richness your compositions is to add depth to your shots. Intentionally use angles and leading lines to help guide your audience to where you want them to look.
Here’s a great example from Stillmotion.
Instead of shooting this straight on, either from behind or from the side, they filmed their subjects on an angle. As a result, the audience’s eyes naturally flow through the members of the tribe.
In addition to the leading lines, the empty blue sky near the top right of the frame — the brightest part — serves as the starting point for where to look first
The combination of both compositional techniques not only guides the viewer to where Stillmotion wants them to look, it also sets the order for how and when to look at each element. Pretty nifty, right?
While screens are flat, the world is three-dimensional. When you’re composing shots, try to look for areas where you can add depth by shooting on angles. Leading lines can be a powerful way to guide your audience’s journey through your story.
Tip 4: Learn the rules, then break them.
As with any craft, there are rules when it comes to filmmaking. Especially concerning compositions.
Lessons like avoid centering your subjects, stick to the rule of thirds, ensure your horizons are straight, etc., all certainly have merit, but it’s best to look at them as suggestions. And when it’s story-relevant, it’s okay to deviate from them completely, which is our fourth composition tip.
Take, for instance, the rule involving short-sided framing, which is generally not a suggested type of framing. A short-sided composition means the subject is looking out of the frame, instead of into the frame. And unlike long-sided framing, which allows the audience to see what the subject is looking at, short-sided composition keeps that out of the shot. Thus, it creates a certain feeling of the unknown — a tension that can be felt by audiences.
Here’s an image of a short-sided composition from a wedding film by Dwightly.
In this shot, the bride is looking out of the frame, and the audience can’t see what she’s looking at. Being the curious creatures that audiences are, they desperately want to know what would be causing her to look left, instead of that beautiful waterfall to the right of her. And thus, tension is born.
But, here’s the thing: every film (even wedding films!) need tension.
Conflict is part of every great story, and the use of short-sided framing can be a really powerful way to create conflict through your compositions.
In the wedding image above, this could be the moment the bride gets to see her future husband for the first time on their wedding day. Even with a beautiful waterfall beside her, she can’t help but feel nervous excitement. Through the use of short-sided framing, Dwightly has passed her present emotional state directly onto the audience, allowing them to feel the same jitters she is feeling. In that case, short-sided framing is strongly story-relevant — even if it means breaking the rule of always having your characters looking into your frames.
It’s okay to cut off your subjects with the frame… if they’re soaring through the clouds and it’s relevant to your story.
If your subjects are acting like kids, try shooting upwards towards them to mimic the feeling of how kids see the world — your audience will feel it.
Whether you use center-framing, avoid the rule of thirds, or feature tilted horizons, breaking composition rules can be a very powerful storytelling technique. Make sure you first know the rules and why they suggest what they suggest, so you can break them in such a way that will help push your story further.
Tip 5: Remember that film is a series of still images.
In all of these examples, we’ve pulled individual frame grabs to help illustrate the concepts. What we haven’t touched on though is that each of the frame grabs is just one frame from a series of frames that makes up an individual shot, and that each individual shot makes up a series of shots, which combines to make up sequences, which makes up an entire film.
So, when it comes to compositions, it’s just as important to look at the frame level, the clip level, the sequence level, and the story level. The goal is to ensure that within each frame, shot, and sequence, your compositions are supporting the story.
Let’s go back to our wedding still above from Dwightly. Here’s a sequence of frames from a single shot — the actual first look between the groom and the bride. The first frame has the bride entering frame left, looking long-sided at her soon to be husband. He, on the other hand, is looking short-sided out of the frame, anxiously awaiting her arrival.
As we move through the remaining frames in the shot, it goes from the groom looking out of frame, to turning around and looking lovingly at his soon to be wife, to ultimately embracing in her in a hug — all perfectly composed using the rule of thirds and echoing the shape of the mountains behind them.
Dwightly has covered the gamut of emotions of both the bride and groom in a single shot. This is the power of using your compositions to guide your audience in a meaningful and story-relevant way.
A good goal to strive for is being cohesive with your compositions, from frame to frame, shot to shot, and sequence to sequence. The result will be a film that not only packs an emotional punch, but one that feels seamless through its cuts.
There ya have it friends, our go-to tips for boosting your composition game. If you’ve got any tips for fancifying composition, we’d love to hear ‘em, so share ‘em in the comments below!
p>Special thanks to Brent Foster, Gnarly Bay, Stillmotion, and Dwightly for lending their imagery to this post. To license any of their footage for your own projects, including the work shown above, head to Story & Heart or check out Vimeo’s Creative Commons page for more.