Module 23


Updated: 02/07/2017

Module 23





Part I

Elements of


The next series of modules will address 15 guidelines of composition, starting with the most important of all -- 

Clearly Establish

Your Objectives

1. First, clearly establish your objectives and hold to them throughout the production.

Your objectives in doing a production may be anything from creating an experience of pure escapism to doing a treatise on spiritual enlightenment. 

Few people would start writing a sentence without any idea of what they wanted to say. Visual statements are no different.

Good writers, producers, directors, and editors know the purpose of each and every shot. 

" Before you decide to include any shot, be able to justify its purpose in the overall message or goal of the production."

"I couldn't resist it, it was such a pretty shot," is not a legitimate reason for including an extraneous scene in a production -- no matter how pretty or interesting it is. It will either slow down the pace of the production or confuse your audience by suggesting that the shot carries some special meaning that they need to keep in mind -- or it will do both.

Slow = Boring

And speaking of slowing things down, "slow" is commonly associated with "boring" -- excuse enough to switch the channel to try to find something more engaging. And, with dozens of TV channels to choose from, there's real competition for viewer attention.

  • If information is presented either too slowly or at a level that is beneath an audience, the production will be perceived as being boring.  

  • If it is presented too quickly or in too abstract a fashion, the audience can become lost and frustrated.

In either case they will probably quickly consider other options.

>>The speed at which ideas are presented in productions has increased dramatically in recent years.

In order to stay competitive (i.e., hold an audience) programs now feature faster cutting, greater and more frequent emotional swings, faster-moving and richer story lines, exotic locations and...

...those two ingredients that, for better or worse, have long been relied upon to hold interest: regular dips into violence (or the threat of violence) and sex (or at least the oblique possibility of sex). 

In novels authors used to spend many pages elaborately setting scenes. Now readers are apt to say, "Enough! Get to the point!" 

>>As a university professor who has been teaching television production for a few decades, I can attest to the fact that the vast majority of video projects I see are too long. Shots are held long after the point is made.

In fact, a good editor could cut most of these projects or productions down by at least half and in the process make them more effective and interesting.

This brings us to an important maxim:

" If in doubt, leave it out. "

"But," the question is often asked, "Isn't good production always good production, no matter how much time passes?"  

From a commercial perspective the answer is "no." 

Most of yesterday's classic films are rather boring by today's standards. Among other things, they simply move too slowly.

Citizen Kane has long been considered by many film historians to be this country's greatest film. In terms of production techniques it was far ahead of its time.

But, now, after a few decades, its production techniques are so behind the times that it's difficult to get a group of young people to sit through this film. 

TV writers used to be content following a single dramatic idea (plot) for an entire show. Today, dramatic television typically consists of parallel stories and different plots and subplots intricately woven together.

Depicting Emotional States

Videographers and filmmakers find it challenging to effectively convey emotional states.

For example, quick, seemingly unrelated scenes of stalled city traffic, lines of people pushing through subway turnstiles, and shots of people jamming escalators might be important in establishing a frenzied state of mind in a character trying to cope with city life. 

But a close-up of "a darling little girl sitting on a bench" in this sequence would not only leave the audience wondering what her role was, but it would probably mislead them into believing that there is a relationship between her and the central story line.

Viewers assume that every shot, gesture, and word of dialogue in a production is there to further the central idea. Thus, each shot you use should contribute to the story or idea you are trying to convey.

Strive for a Feeling of Unity

2. Strive for a feeling of unity. Unity 1If a good film or prize-winning photo is studied, it's generally evident that the elements in the shot have been selected or arranged so they "pull together" to support the basic idea.

When the elements of a shot combine to support a basic visual statement, the shot is said to have unity

The concept of unity applies to such things as lighting, color, wardrobes, sets, and settings.

For example, you might decide to use muted colors to create a certain atmosphere. Or, you may want to create a specific dramatic feeling by using low-key lighting with large shadow areas, together with settings that contain earthy colors and predominant textures. 

By deciding on certain appropriate themes such as these, you can create a consistent feeling or look that will give your production or segments within your production unity. 

Compose Around a

Single Center of Interest

3. The third guideline applies to individual scenes: compose scenes around a single center of interest

Multiple centers of interest may work in three-ring circuses where viewers are able to fully shift their interest from one event to another. But competing centers of interest within a single visual frame weaken, divide, and confuse meaning.

" Think of each shot as a statement."

An effective written statement should be cast around a central idea and be swept clean of anything that does not support, explain, or in some way add to that idea.

Consider this "sentence": "Man speaking on phone, strange painting on wall, coat rack behind man's head, interesting brass bookends on desk, sound of motorcycle going by, woman moving in background...." 

Although we would laugh at such a "sentence," some videographers create visual statements (shots) that include such unrelated and confusing elements. 

unity 2>>We are not suggesting that you eliminate everything except the center of interest, just whatever does not in some way support (or at least, does not detract from) the central idea being presented. 

A scene may, in fact, be cluttered with objects and people, as, for example, an establishing shot of a person working in a busy newsroom.

But each of the things should fit in and belong, and nothing should "upstage" the intended center of interest. 

A master (wide) shot of an authentic interior of an 18th-century farmhouse may include dozens of objects. But each of the objects should add to the overall statement: "18th-century farmhouse." Just make sure you put these supporting elements in a secondary position. 

The viewer has a limited time -- generally only a few seconds -- to understand the content and meaning of a shot. If some basic meaning isn't obvious before the shot is changed, the viewer will miss the point. (Recall that one of the definitions of a "director" is one who "directs attention.")

Selective Focus to the Rescue

Part of the "film look" that many people like centers on selective focus, or bokeh which we covered in an earlier module.

Early film stocks were not highly sensitive to light and lenses had to be used at relatively wide apertures (f-stops) to attain sufficient exposure.

This was fortunate in a way.  By focusing on the key element in each shot and throwing those in front and behind that area out of focus, audiences were immediately led to the scene's center of interest and not distracted by anything else.

Even with today's high-speed film emulsions directors of photography often strive to retain the selective focus effect by shooting under low light levels and using wide lens apertures.

selective focusThe same principles that have worked so well in film can also be used in video. 

Note how foreground and background elements here have been thrown out of focus so that attention will center on the woman.

This level of image control takes extra planning with today's highly sensitive video cameras because the auto-iris circuit can adjust the f-stop to an aperture that brings both the foreground and background into focus.

To make use of the creative control inherent in selective focus, high shutter speeds, neutral density filters, or lighting control must be used.

Where There Is Light...light in composition

The eye is drawn to the brighter areas of a scene.

This means that the prudent use of lighting can be a composition tool, in this case to emphasize important scenic elements and to de-emphasize others.   We'll see more examples of this in the modules on lighting.

Shifting the Center of Interest

In static composition scenes maintain a primary center of interest; in dynamic composition centers of interest can change with time.  

Movement can be used to shift attention. Although our eye may be dwelling on the scene's center of interest, it will quickly be drawn to movement in a secondary area. Someone entering the scene is an example. 

As we noted in an earlier module, we can also force the audience to shift their attention through the technique of rack focus, or changing the focus of the lens from one object to another. 

Observe Proper Subject Placement  

4. The fourth general guideline for composition is: observe proper subject placement.  

In gun-sight fashion most weekend snapshooters feel they have to place the center of interest -- be it Uncle Henry or the Eiffel tower -- squarely in the center of the frame. 

This often weakens the composition.

Rule of Thirds

Except possibly for people looking directly at the camera, it's often best to place the center of interest near one of the points indicated by the rule of thirds.

In the rule of thirds the total image area is divided vertically and horizontally into three equal sections.  

Generally, composition is even stronger if the center of interest falls near one of the four cross-points illustrated in the photo on the right below.

A few still cameras even have the rule of thirds guidelines visible in their viewfinders.

example1 rule of thirds

Note that both photos above have centers of interest consistent with the rule of thirds.

Here are two more examples.

bagpipe flower

>>But, remember, the rule of thirds is only a guideline -- something that should be considered while composing a scene. Many scenes "work" that do not follow this guideline, as you can see below.

subject centered

 Horizontal and Vertical Lines

The rule of thirds also suggests that horizon lines should be either in the upper third or the lower third of the frame.

In the same way, vertical lines shouldn't divide the frame into two equal parts. It's often best to place a dominant vertical line either one-third or two-thirds of the way across the frame. 

It's also generally a good idea to break up or intersect dominant, unbroken lines with some scenic element. Otherwise, the scene may seem divided. 

A horizon can be broken by an object in the foreground. Often, this can be done by simply moving the camera slightly. 

A vertical line can be interrupted by something as simple as a tree branch cutting across the frame.

Although the horizon line is in the center of the frame in the above picture, the masts of the boats tend to break it up and keep it from dividing the frame in half.

Leading the Subject

Generally, when a subject is moving in a particular direction, space is provided at the side of the frame for the subject(s) to "move into."

This is referred to as leading the subject. In a close-up (see below on the right) we might refer to it as "looking room."

leading the subject   looking room  

Note that in the photo on the left above that space is allowed for the subjects to "walk into." In the photo on the right above "looking space" is provided on the left side of the frame.

 The required reading for this module relates to an important social issue: -- television production and violence.

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