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THE FILMMAKER'S EYE
LEARNING (AND BREAKING) THE RULES OF CINEMATIC COMPOSITION
By GUSTAVO MERCADO
Copyright © 2011 ELSEVIER INC.
All right reserved.
Chapter One finding the frame
I recently had the opportunity to attend the screening of a short film by a beginning filmmaker. The first scene started with a shot of a young couple sitting on a couch, having an increasingly heated argument. The shot was wide enough to include most of the room, which was littered with magazines, DVDs, empty beer cans, a collection of sneakers stashed under the couch, and movie posters on every wall (obviously the young director's place). A small table could also be seen in the foreground of the shot, with a game console and a stack of video games prominently displayed on it. After the film ended, there was a Q & A session with the director, who looked very proud of his work and eager to answer questions. A man in the audience asked: "Was the guy on the couch trying to act like Travis Bickle?" The filmmaker look puzzled, and asked him why he was asking about Travis Bickle. The man answered he thought the large Taxi Driver poster right behind the actor was part of the story. "No, that poster just happened to be there," the filmmaker replied. Another audience member asked: "Was he trying to scam money from her to buy more video games?" The director look confused. "Was she upset with him because he doesn't clean up?" someone else asked. The filmmaker, obviously frustrated by now, stopped the Q & A to explain that the scene in question was really about the young couple trying to avoid having their first argument since they had just gotten married, and that he thought this should have been obvious by the way the young man's hand was nervously twitching as he held his wife's hand. The movie posters, video games, and the messy room were not really meant to be important parts of the scene and the story. The director was, however, pleased when someone asked him if a shot from the end of his film, where the couple was shown walking towards the camera in slow-motion, was an homage to a similar shot from Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992). "Yes!" he replied. "I'm glad you caught that." When asked about the significance of that reference to his story, he answered: "I thought it'd look cool," to a still puzzled audience. The rest of his film had the same issues the opening shot and his homage shot had; there was a complete disconnection between the composition of his shots and their function within the narrative of his film.
The biggest mistake this director made was failing to create compositions that reflected meaningful aspects of his story. In the opening scene, he framed a shot that was visually dense, filled with details that turned out to be extraneous to the story and prevented the audience from getting the point he was trying to make. By prominently including the movie posters, the game console, the sneakers under the couch, and the empty beer cans, the twitching hand of the husband was lost in the shot; the audience was unable to glean the intended meaning of the composition. When the director watched the shot through the viewfinder of the camera during production, he did not notice anything else besides the twitching hand of the husband in the frame, because he already knew that was a meaningful detail in the scene; his audience did not. In the last shot of his film, the director was able to duplicate a composition he had seen in another film, and although the shot briefly elicited a positive response from the audience, it later became a source of confusion when they realized that it had no meaningful connection with the story. The director simply did not think about his story in a cinematic way, to create shot compositions that visually emphasized significant plot details of his story as well as its themes, motifs, and core ideas. If he had understood the relationship between the technical aspects of filmmaking, the narrative function each type of shot can have, and the rules of composition, his audience's reaction to his film would have been vastly different.
If you want to become an effective storyteller, one of the most important things you can do is to have a clear vision of your story, so that it reflects your unique take on it, not somebody else's. You already do this without thinking whenever you share an anecdote about something that happened to you. Let us say, for instance, that you want to let a friend know about the time someone got upset when you accidentally cut them off while driving and they chased you down the highway. You would not begin your story by describing what you did on that day as soon as you woke up, how long it took you to take a shower, the articles you read on a blog while having breakfast, the clothes you were wearing, or any other meaningless detail that occurred before you got into your car and drove down the highway. Intuitively, you would edit your story to include only the most important parts, so that your friend would understand how terrifying/interesting/ crazy your road rage encounter really was. The director of the short film did not do this when he shot his film. By leaving all those unnecessary details in the composition of his shots, he did the equivalent of describing the color of the socks the guy sitting on the couch was wearing, instead of showing his audience how uncomfortable and nervous the husband was feeling while holding the hand of his wife.
Anything and everything that is included in the composition of a shot will be interpreted by an audience as being there for a specific purpose that is directly related and necessary to understand the story they are watching. This is one of those conventions that has been developed over thousands of years of visual storytelling (even cavemen knew not to include extraneous details in cave paintings!), and continues to be as important today as the first day it was used. If we take this principle just a bit further, we could add that the placement, size, and visibility of anything in the frame will also affect how an audience understands its importance to the story.
Take a look at the shot from Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) at the beginning of this chapter. It is an extreme long shot that shows a car parked on a deserted road, with someone in the backseat pointing a gun at someone sitting in the front seat. In the distant background, the Statue of Liberty is visible above a bank of wild grass. This seemingly simple composition has a very clear meaning: someone is being murdered inside a car on a deserted road. In fact, this shot's meaning is so clear that even someone who has never seen The Godfather would have no trouble understanding what is happening at this moment in the story. This shot is an excellent example of including only what is absolutely necessary in the frame to get the point being conveyed by the director. If you have been paying attention and observed the shot closely, you should be curious about a little detail included in the composition of this shot. If everything in the frame is meant to be meaningful and necessary to understand the story, then why is the Statue of Liberty part of the composition of this shot? Is it there simply to establish the location of the murder? Why is it so distant and tiny in the frame? If you look at the shot carefully, you will notice that the statue is facing away from the car where the murder is taking place. Could this be a meaningful detail? If it is in the frame, then everything about it, from its placement to the angle from which it was shot, has to be meaningful. Let us recount the example where you shared your road rage incident with a friend. When you told your story, you left out irrelevant details, describing the events from your unique point of view, since you experienced them firsthand. But what if the day of the incident happened to be the very first time you were driving on a highway? How do you think that would have changed the way you told the story? More importantly, do you think your friend would have felt differently about how meaningful this event was to you? You probably would have emphasized your lack of driving experience, and how this incident made you weary of driving on highways, or how particularly difficult it was to exit from the highway when you noticed the guy was following you. In other words, your unique experience (not only of the event itself, but also your life experience) would have prompted you to contextualize the event, emphasizing and adding details that would have inflected your story so that it reflected your individual experience of it. Creating meaningful compositions works in the same way; the framing of your shots should reflect your understanding of the story in a way that conveys your perspective, your values, your idiosyncrasies, your vision. When Coppola chose to include the Statue of Liberty in his shot from The Godfather, seen from that particular angle, at that particular size and placement in the frame, this is exactly what he was doing; he was adding his perspective to this event in the story, commenting on it, conveying much more than just the murder of a man inside a car. What do you think including such a recognizable symbol of freedom, the American Dream, and the immigrant journey says about the killing of the man in the car?
When the director of the short film used the same shot composition as the famous slow motion shot from the opening of Reservoir Dogs, he expected the audience to connect with his story in the same way they had connected with the Tarantino film. This was not the case, because the effectiveness of the original shot worked within the context of that story, and while the audience had a reaction when they recognized the homage he was making, the shot was eventually rendered meaningless once they realized it had absolutely nothing to do with the story they watched in his film. The composition of a shot conveys meaning not only through the arrangement of visual elements in a frame, but also by the context in which it is presented. A high angle shot (where the camera is placed so that it looks down on a subject), for instance, is commonly used when trying to convey that a character feels defeated, lacking in confidence, or psychologically vulnerable; while this is a common usage of this kind of shot, you cannot simply assume that your audience will automatically infer those connotations whenever you use this angle, unless the context in your story supports it. There has to be a direct connection between what takes place in the story and the use of a particular composition. This is exactly how certain visual conventions, like showing characters walking in slow motion towards the camera, became associated with certain connotations in the first place. Additionally, because so much of the meaning of a shot is derived by the context in which it is presented, it is possible to subvert the commonly associated connotations of certain shots. You could, for instance, use a high angle shot to convey that a character is confident, assertive, and in control, and nobody in the audience would find the composition ironic or ineffective, if the context in which you use it is supported within your story (see the chapter on the medium close up for an example of a high angle shot used in this way). But how do you decide which story elements should be used to motivate your choice of shot size and composition? Which context should support your shot selection? Before you can make a decision about where to place the camera, you need to understand exactly what should dominate the composition, what should be included and excluded from it, and what meaning will be conveyed by the shot beyond what is contained in the frame. One strategy is to identify the themes and ideas that lie at the heart of your story, its essence, its core ideas. What is your story really about? Effective stories have strong core ideas that add emotional depth and context, allowing the audience to connect with what you are showing them. John G. Avildsen's Rocky (1976), for instance, tells the story of a small-time boxer who gets a one-in-a-million chance to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. Only that is not what the story is really about. Rocky is really about a man who once had a lot of potential as a boxer but squandered it and never amounted to much, seeing himself as a failure because of it. Training for the heavyweight championship makes him realize that he can still have a chance to be somebody, to regain his self-respect and to be respected by others. Gaining self-respect: this is the core idea, the main thematic context behind the story of Rocky. Every decision behind the composition of every shot can now be designed to support this core idea, with a visual strategy (the set of decisions related to the use of stocks, color, lighting, lenses, depth of field, filtration, and color correction, among others) that reflects the theme of self-respect throughout the film. If the unfilmed script for Rocky landed on your desk and you were given a one-in-a-million chance to direct the film, how would you go about creating compositions that reflect the core idea of "regaining self-respect?" You could, for instance, plot the journey Rocky takes toward self-respect, so that the scenes at the beginning of the film, while he is still unmotivated to change his ways, are shot from a slight high angle, making him look like he lacks confidence and feels psychologically vulnerable (the conventional use of a high angle shot, but used here within a well thought-out context and visual strategy). As Rocky trains harder and focuses on his goal, the camera could slowly switch to using slight low angle shots, subtly conveying his increasing confidence and change in attitude. This simple decision alone could be enough to create compositions that reflect your take on the story, but you could have combined it with any of the rules of composition shown in this book as well. You could, for instance, create a visual strategy where the placement of the character in the frame is also plotted throughout the film to match his journey toward self-respect, so that he is placed off-center, in consistently unbalanced compositions at the beginning of the film and in more balanced framings toward the end, or use wide angle lenses and then switch to telephotos, or start with shallow depths of field and then use deep depths of field, or use handheld shots at the beginning and static shots toward the end; you get the point.
Whatever visual strategy you decide to use based on the core ideas of your story should be used consistently throughout your film for your audience to understand its intended meaning within the context you created. This means that the compositional choices you make should work at every level of your film, starting with every single shot, then every scene, every sequence, and the entire film as a whole. If you use a particular shot composition to mean "he lacks confidence" at one point in your story, you should then avoid using the same shot composition to mean anything else other than "lacking confidence," or else the audience will fail to connect with the core ideas in your story even if they can follow the events that take place in it. Every shot counts, no matter how inconsequential it might seem (and no shot should be inconsequential in the first place since it is included in your film, right?).
Going back to the shot of the young couple sitting on the couch. What could the director have done differently? The right questions to ask really are: what is the core idea of his story? What about the core idea of that particular scene? What is this scene really about besides the couple trying to avoid having an argument? Based on the answers to these questions, the director could have devised a visual strategy to support the core ideas of his story; he could have then created compositions that supported them, using the rules of cinematic composition analyzed in this book. Following (or breaking, provided you do it within the proper context) the rules of cinematic composition can ensure that you create visually compelling images, but they can only truly connect with an audience when they express your vision of the story; this is the most important step you can take to develop your own visual style and voice as a filmmaker.
Excerpted from THE FILMMAKER'S EYE by GUSTAVO MERCADO Copyright © 2011 by ELSEVIER INC.. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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