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The video above is a story with no dialogue, shown through a series of stills, like a graphic novel or story board.
I’ve marked it up with ideas about how the composition of the elements in the frame help tell the story. By analyzing it in this way, we’re dissecting the intuitive responses that we have to people, places, and objects in a scene, their relationship to each other, and their significance.
Theories about composition go back to at least ancient Egyptian times. Who knows, maybe Cro-Magnon man was critiquing his fellow cave painters. We seem to have an innate reaction to design.
Rule of Thirds
If we look at this portrait, it seems a little strange.
The eyes are the most important feature of a face. In this instance, we’ve put them dead center. And symmetry is just that: dead. The focal point is exactly balanced in the frame and the model seems like she has no motion or dynamism. Also, human eyes are located about 1/3 from the top of the head, so centering them top to bottom seems odd.
In this version, the model’s eyes (one eye in particular) is at a 1/3 line both horizontally and vertically.
Why does this look better to us? There are many theories about it. For one, there are proportions in nature that often exhibit this 1/3 – 2/3 relationship.
Fibonacci Sequence and the Golden Ratio
As things grow, they accumulate in a natural way, building on what was previously there. Population growth depends on the number of people extant in the previous generation. In each generation there are more people, so population doesn’t expand 1,2,3,4,5,6. It expands 1,2,3,5,8,13, where each number is the sum of the two previous ones. This is commonly known as the Fibonacci Sequence.
The ratio of growth is approximately 1.6:1. That proportion is called the Golden Ratio, and it shows up in nature in everything from the growth spirals of sunflowers to pinecones.
It also shows up in manmade designs. Books, doorways, envelopes, tables, paper, DVD boxes, cell phones, swimming pools, TVs, windows, paintings. Look around. You’ll start to see the Golden Ratio everywhere.
Many ideas in design have intuitive, natural roots. For example, larger objects in the frame will tend to grab our attention. Visual contrast highlights a polarized situation. Shooting from a low angle makes things look imposing.
It’s interesting to note that some things are not universal. Most movies made in the West will show a journey, progress, forward motion as moving from left to right on the screen. We read from left to right, so our eyes intuitively scan in that direction. That may not be the case in cultures that read right to left.
Try watching a film this way: concentrate on the static framing of the characters and elements, and figure out why they work for that scene.
When you write, direct, or visualize a scene, decide how the composition of each shot will help tell the story.
Most of the time the audience is unaware of the effect composition has on them, but unconscious impressions are conveyed in every framing decision in a film. These composition principles are not rules. They are a language artists strive to learn, like grammar, so that we can make poetry.
Thanks for tuning in.