“Show, don’t tell.”

– A very wise filmmaker

Next time you’re watching a movie, try randomly hitting the pause button and observe what you see. Does the way the action is currently framed reflect the story? If the filmmakers are worth their salt, chances are it actually offers up a bit more information than you initially thought

This is how you can communicate far more than what is written for the characters’ dialogue and add delicious layers to your story. How you have chosen to frame the action tells us so much more than words ever could like revealing details of the characters’ relationships, their motivations, and their emotions. And like all filmmaking tools, there are many ways to utilize this one, as well as many ways to unconventionally use it. Let’s fire up some examples!

 

FRAMING YOUR CHARACTERS

We’re not just talking about the frame of the actual screen, that is actually framing up your shot, deciding between a wide shot, medium, or close-up, or deciding what focal length to use. We’re talking about the placement of your character within the frame along with what is surrounding him/her.

How a character is positioned relative to the rest of their surroundings can say a lot about their state (For example are they feeling trapped? Or free? Can you use the environment to your advantage in delivering this information?)

If you shoot someone standing in a doorway, you’ve literally “framed” them. This may have them appear boxed in, or it could show that they are imposing or blocking the way out for another character. It all depends on how you use it.

 

a man under a bridge

 

In this above shot from Road to Perdition (2002) this is our introduction to a new character. The cinematographer (Conrad C. Hall) has applied a vertigo effect on this shot to make the train tracks warp and stretch eerily as the character approaches camera. This tells us that this new character is possibly twisted, abnormal or treacherous. And the shot doesn’t lie, this is one bad dude coming into the story.

 

a man in a shirt with flowers

 

In this shot from Garden State (2004), the main character is experiencing plenty of existential turmoil as he returns home for his estranged mother’s funeral and the town he left behind years ago. This frame of him literally disappearing into the background lets us know that he is lost, both metaphorically and physically.

 

ADDING DEPTH

Are we looking directly at a brick wall? Or are we staring off across a barren landscape to behold a beautiful sunrise?

 

a man on a crossroad

 

The amount of depth the shot has, and where you’ve chosen to place your subjects in that depth, can give us information on the path those characters are currently on (eg. the cowboy starts trudging off into the sunset) and the relationship between each of those subjects.

 

shooting over the stairs

 

Depth can also help us guide the eye where we want it to go. Does the long stretch of stairs lead us straight to the broken window that our character fears an enemy will jump through after her?

 

black and white photo of indoors

 

The legendary Gregg Toland who gave us the best case study of cinematography to-date in the form of Citizen Kane (1942), framed these two characters with an uncomfortably large space separating the two characters (Kane, sitting in a chair in the foreground, and his wife Susan sitting in the maw of the ginormous fireplace on the opposite side of the room). This lets you know everything you need to about the state of their marriage at this point.

 

THE ALL-IMPORTANT “RULE OF THIRDS”

Ah, yes. Here is another one of those pesky “rules” that everyone says you should follow, but also a fun one to break when it calls for it. You’ll see why.

 

grid

 

The Rule of Thirds puts forth that every frame be made up into a grid-like structure (see the fancy grid above?). With it serving as a guide, we can use the grid to place our subjects accordingly.

 

clint eastwood picture with a grid overlay

 

If we’re seeing a person’s close-up reaction, their eyes would be placed in the upper-third of the frame along the topmost horizontal line.

 

grid overlay on a picture

 

If it’s a person walking across the screen, you place them in the opposite ⅓ of frame from the direction they are walking. Obviously, because we want to see where they are walking.

 

person in front of a burining airplane

 

If it’s a lone subject that we are focusing on, then place it smack dab in the middle of the frame where our eyes naturally start to focus on.

In fact, central framing is often employed for fast-paced sequences because of our tendency to stay focused on the centre of the screen. We can see this used with great success during the frenetic pacing of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) which was supposedly shot with the cinematographer placing crosshairs on the centre of the frame to line up the subject in most shots. You can see how effective this was by pressing play on the video below and watching the movie sped up 12x (Credit for the video goes to the talented editor Vashi Nedomansky. Check out his other work). Notice how you can still follow the action? That’s the magic of central framing, baby!

 

 

Now…that being said, here’s where we get to smash this rule to bits.

These are the conventional typical uses of the Rule of Thirds, but what happens when we go against the grain and place subjects where they wouldn’t be expected to be in the frame.

 

ryan gosling upclose

drive

 

In the above scene from Drive (2011), we are seeing the meeting of these two characters for the first time. What does their placement in each of these alternating frames tell you?

They both occupy the same space of the frame, even though Ryan Gosling’s character (named Driver) should by the Rule of Thirds be placed in the right third of the frame looking left. Oscar Isaacs plays the husband (named Standard) of Carrie Mulligan’s character (Irene) who has just been released from prison and returned home.

As we cut back and forth during their dialogue they are literally fighting for the same position in the frame, which Standard holds over Irene in the background. We can tell they are at odds with each other before a word is ever spoken.

 

NOW THAT YOU KNOW THE RULES…

The beauty with each of these filmmaking conventions is the way you can rely on them as a guide to build an aesthetically-pleasing frame that tells your story, whether you use them in a way the audience is expecting or in a way that surprises them by going against the grain.

Some good practice would be to try going around with a camera for a day and see how many ways you can frame up subjects. See how you can build a story around the image by simply framing them within their environment, changing the depth between them and other subjects/their background, and using that Rule of Thirds to place them in the proper area of the frame.

Perhaps this is why it’s still called “photography” when it comes to filmmaking. Each frame can serve to tell a bit of the story, if you build that frame with the story in mind.

Now that we’ve gone over a few of the ways you communicate to your audience with some simple composition techniques, perhaps we could focus on one particular movie and see how well those techniques can be used. Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article where we’ll be doing just that.