Film Composition

Technical Articles | By: indie

For those of you who have photography experience, this term may already be familiar to you. Composition is the term used to describe the way an image is set up; film composition refers specifically to its use in filmmaking.

The rectangle that encloses every frame of your film becomes the window through which the viewer looks into the world you have created. For the duration of the film, you want this to be their reality.

However, this “window” is unlike reality in that said viewer does not have the ability to look around and take in more information than you give them; they are limited to only the knowledge you provide them through visual and aural means.

Think of the way you set up each shot as a tool that you can use to shape your viewers’ perception of every moment. If you’re going to provide them with this information, you want it to appear in a way that draws the eye to its most important parts so that these parts are quickly recognizable.

The Z-Axis

Although a film is technically a two-dimensional (2D) image on a screen, part of an audience’s suspension of disbelief relies on your ability to appeal to their subconscious and make them think they’re looking at a 3D reality.

What I mean by that is, if they’re looking at an image that resembles something they might see in real life, they’ll be more likely to submit themselves mentally to what you’re putting in front of them.

When we speak about the layers of film composition available in an image, we’re talking about the appearance of depth – how far away things appear to be, or what we call the Z-axis. Video shot on a digital camcorder with a fixed lens has a tendency to be really flat; they don’t have a lot of z-axis depth (because of the way video cameras work. More on that here).

To separate our general layers along the Z-axis, we use the terms foreground, middleground, and background. Lighting, depth of field (which is explained in this tutorial), elevation, and perspective can be used to give depth to each of these layers of distance.

Light and shadow, for example, play an important role in an audience’s perception of the Z-axis. When a person stands in the doorway of a dark room with light coming in from the other side, a silhouette is created. When a three-point lighting setup is used to illuminate half of a person’s face slightly brighter than the other half, it gives the person three-dimensional qualities.

The X and Y Axes

The other part of film composition involves the spatial arrangement of focal points in the frame from left to right and from top to bottom. Applicable to both photography and cinematography, the rule of thirds specifies the points in an image where the center of interest should be.

Imagine a picture – any picture – or use an actual image you’ve got lying around. Start at the top left corner, and then go a third of the way across the top. Draw an imaginary line on the image from top to bottom. Go another third of the way across and draw another imaginary line. Now your image is divided into thirds vertically. Do the same thing horizontally, and you’d have a total of nine “boxes” divided by these imaginary lines.

There are also four points at which the lines intersect. These points, according to the rule of thirds, are the best places around which to orient the focal points of an image.

Audience Perception

Using a combination of factors on the Z, X, and Y axes is key if you want to take your imagery to a new height. When you consider film composition, remember that what’s outside the frame is often just as important as what’s shown within it.


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Time: April 14, 2009, 7:45 pm

[…] No one is ever framed in the middle in any of the LOTR films, unless it’s something like the moment when Aragorn bursts through the doors to the halls of Rohan, where the shot is used for effect. These films closely follow the rule of thirds, which is a basic tenet of photography and film composition. […]

Pingback from Film Composition – Creating an Effective Image
Time: November 28, 2011, 1:47 pm

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Time: July 24, 2012, 6:34 am

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