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3 Tips For Video Composition | From Stills to Motion

May 29th 2014 1:45 PM

In this series of articles, Joe Cha, Photographer and Videographer, teaches the basics of DSLR Cimematography from a photographer’s perspective.

Composing for Video

Composing for video is very similar to composing for photography, there are a few guidelines that you want to know and from there you’re free to do what fits your creative vision. In this article, we’re going over 3 rules that Hollywood filmmakers use to create their compositions. To give your videos a Hollywood look you don’t need crazy equipment and effects, you simply need to be mindful of your compositions (although the gear and special effects sure don’t hurt).

Tip 1: Rule of Thirds

The rule of thirds is one of the most used compositions in film and photography, and it’s based on the Golden Ratio which is found in many arts beyond stills and video. The rule of thirds uses 2 equally spaced horizontal lines and 2 equally spaced vertical lines to break up the frame into 9 parts. Here’s what a rule of thirds grid looks like in a 16×9 aspect ratio:

rule of thirds

If you pay attention to Hollywood films, they use this composition frequently. The rule of thirds creates balance in the frame and is a great tool for story telling.

300 (2006)

300 (2006)

The Spartans push the Persian army over cliff in the film 300. The dramatic falling soldiers on the left vertical third is balanced by the action of the pushing Spartans on the rest of the 2/3 of the frame.

Drive (2011)

Drive (2011)

In Drive, the 2 actors are placed on opposing vertical rule of third lines. The size of the actor on the left is complimented by the forward facing actress on the right.

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Enter the Dragon (1973)

Bruce Lee is on the left vertical line in this scene from Enter the Dragon, and his action stance facing towards the right of the frame gives the composition a nice balance.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

By putting the escapees on the left vertical line, we’re able to see the size of the fence and institution in the remaining 2/3 of the frame in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Papillon (1973)

Papillon (1973)

In this scene from Papillon, by placing the subject on the left vertical line we’re able to get see a nice deep depth in the right 2/3 of the frame.

Tip 2: Proper Headroom

Proper Headroom is another rule of composition that Hollywood uses. The head of the body is the most important part of of an actor, and it can cause unbalance in the composition when not placed properly. To create proper headroom we simply put the eyes of our subject on the upper horizontal rule of thirds line. It doesn’t matter how small or how big your subject is in the frame, as long as their eyes are on the upper vertical rule of thirds line, you have proper headroom.

2001 (1968)

2001 (1968)

American Beauty (1999)

American Beauty (1999)

Inception (2010)

Inception (2010)

Taxi Driver (1976)

Taxi Driver (1976)

The Producers (2005)

The Producers (2005)

Tip 3: Implied Line

Implied line is a line that isn’t literally in the frame but figuratively, and that can be represented by a direction a character is facing, shadows, or by repeating objects in the frame. Implied lines are used to lead viewers eyes through the frame, and it can also be used to show depth and potential action.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Mad Max (1979)

Mad Max (1979)

Network (1976)

Network (1976)

The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971)

The Tragedy of Macbeth (1971)

Conclusion

By being intentional of your compositions you are already improving your videos exponentially. Next time you watch a movie try to see how many of these tips you can find in the scenes, you’ll be surprised at how easy they are to identify. And next time you hit “record” on your camera, think of these tips.

About

I’m a photographer and cinematographer based in Southern California. When I don’t have a camera in my face I enjoy going to the movies and dissecting the story telling and visual aesthetics.

Comments [6]

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  1. Jesper Ek

    Great article!

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  2. Michael Chapman

    Good stuff Cha – hope you continue this series on a consistent basis! :)

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  3. E

    I have a feeling you mixed up horizontal and vertical lines, but other than that, great tips! (:

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  4. Scott Hampton

    Excellent article. I like the brevity of it, honestly. It was a great refresher. Sometimes we do focus excessively on effects, grading, and shock, foregoing the basics that lead to strong compositions. It’s good to “come home” often.

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