Film making: Developing an ‘eye’ for composition

Often, in the past, one of the biggest obstacles to pursuing a creative/artistic path like film-direction is the lack of access to the necessary equipment. The only option for the amateur or wannabe film maker was 8mm or Super 8mm film or if they were slightly more fortunate, 16mm.

Putting that shot footage together and watching it back involved processing, sticky tape, swearing, film-projectors and making a screen with sheets nicked off your bed.

Luckily, this was much more of a problem in the past than it is now. Within the last decade advances in digital video technology has resulted in an abundance of low-cost image capture devices, digital camcorders and accessories, enabling anyone with an interest in the subject to experiment and learn the craft.

That craft contains certain skills that all directors and soon-to-be directors need if they want communicate their unique vision, firstly, to their cast and crew and then eventually to their potential audience, waiting breathlessly in the dark.

Film making is a collaborative activity and you will always need others to assist you but one of the most important skills for a director is also easy to practice alone. This is the art of framing or composition.

What is composition?

Composition is the art of arranging elements within the camera frame into an appropriate and harmonious form. The organisation of the physical (objects, people, landscape) and the psychological aspects (viewpoint, mood, position) of a shot, is designed to communicate an idea or essential aspect of the story you are telling. Of course, if you are trying to disturb your audience you can deliberately create disharmony within your frames.

Everything within a frame will attract the eye of the viewer if you allow it. Now, where do you want that eye to go? Do you want it darting about all over the place? In that case, have lots of objects, people and activity going on in that frame, all of equal interest. This is what photographers call a ‘busy’ frame. There is no one centre of interest and this can be quite tiring to look at.

The questions you have to be asking yourself are, “

  • where is the major point, or points, of interest in this frame?
  • where do you want the audience to look?

It is good practice then to produce images that ‘lead the eye’ to a point that you have decided upon.

All you need is a device that takes pictures and some motivation. Ideally that would be a dedicated camera but a cell phone is just as useful. Practice capturing people, buildings, landscapes, objects. Practice and then practice some more. You’re not trying to take the best picture ever; you merely want to develop your ‘eye’.

As a visual artist, knowledge of how to compose shots is a must-have and there is no excuse for not developing it. Once you do however, you will be able communicate your filmed images and cinematic vision with much more power and authority.

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