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Cinematography 101: Frame Composi on Beyond the Rule of Thirds

August 19, 2015 (2015-08-19T11:35:35+00:00) By Danny Santos<h p://news.doddleme.com/author/dsantos/>


By Danny F. Santos (doddleNEWS)

Designing your framing is one of the most important aspects of cinematography<h p://news.doddleme.com/tag/cinematography-101/>. How you place your subjects will have a huge impact on the
audience even if the audience doesnt know why. The most well known composi on tool is known as the rule of thirds. Many DSLRs actually have a rule of thirds op on that you can turn on
and o, but it isnt the only way to frame your shot.
To illustrate these cinematography concepts, Im going to borrow from one of my favorite lms, David Leans Lawrence of Arabia. The cinematography was by Freddie Young, who won an
Academy Award for the picture, so its a pre y good primer on these concepts.

Chaky<h ps://commons.wikimedia.org

Rule of Thirds


We might as well start with the basics of cinematography! The rule of thirds simply breaks your frame down into a three-by-three grid. This gives you nine equal parts to compose your frame
with and the lines are where you place your prominent elements in the shot. Usually the lower third of the image is used as a horizon line, while the primary focus will sit on an intersect point.

Lower third horizon line

Lawrences right eye is the focal point where two lines intersect

Golden Spiral
This one will be a strange tool to use with Lawrence of Arabia, because it was shot in Super Panavision 70<h p://news.doddleme.com/equipment/taran no-walks-the-walk-gets-70mm-lm-projectors-for-the-hateful-eight/>. The golden spiral
has an approximately 1.6:1 ra o, and doesnt really t the 2.20:1 edge-to-edge of Super Panavision. However, if you place it inside the the frame, you can s ll create some great images by just centering it.
I wont get into the math or the ancient greek history of the spiral, but its seen everywhere in nature, from seashells to galaxies, which is what makes it pleasing to the human eye; were hardwired to no ce it subconsciously.
The focal point will roughly be where the spiral starts, and then corkscrews away from.

Golden spiral

This is fairly similar to to the rule of thirds, but instead of breaking your frame down to a three-by-three grid, you split it in half along the ver cal, and half along the horizontal. This type of framing will give you a bit more of a
split-screen-like framing than you would get out of the rule of thirds.


Up to this point, weve been using mostly parallel and perpendicular lines which makes for fairly rigid framing in cinematography. With diagonals you can separate foreground and background in a very striking way especially
if you juxtapose it in edi ng with any of the previous tools.
To split your frame into a diagonal, you generally start at one corner of the frame and then move at an angle near the opposing corner. Rarely will both these corners touch meaning you can split the image into more than
four parts.


The Center
One of the trends you may have no ced in this cinematography how-to is that the center of the frame has been avoided. However, that doesnt mean it always has to be avoided and some mes it will help quite a bit. Almost
all of Mad Max: Fury Road was center framed<h ps://vimeo.com/129314425> so that even with the extremely quick cuts in the ac on the eye doesnt have to wander and try to make sense of the ac on thats why the
geography of the ac on in that lm work so well.


The Edges and Unbalancing the Frame

With all of those composi onal rules, you can now start playing around with pushing elements to the edges. I picked this lm specically because Young used this technique to make the scenes in the lm appear to be
enormous. Using your standard rule of thirds grid, just push the horizon line (in blue) down near the bo om edge of the frame. In this example it makes the sky look incredibly vast compared to the subject in the frame. Youll
also no ce that Young purposefully avoided placing Lawrence on any of the regular rule of thirds lines nor directly in the center of the frame. This unbalancing of the image makes it appear as if the sky goes on beyond the
limits of the frame.

Edges and unbalancing

Mix and Match

There many dierent types of composi ons you could use when framing but never forget that you can combine them as well. If we go back to the image that demonstrates quadrants, youll no ce that it uses more than just
that composi on. In fact it uses at least three dierent tools to create the image with the red lines showing how quadrants create a horizon through the middle of the frame.

Mix and match

Apply the rule of thirds with green lines, and you can see how the frame is actually split into three columns with the center devoid of anything interes ng to look at. Youll also no ce that neither character in the foreground
is located on a rule of thirds line, but rather in the center of their respec ve columns.
The two characters in the frame are actually pushed to the edges (represented with the yellow line) to create a much wider space between them
and makes the desert look immense.


Now you probably no ce that we can even take this even further: the image is actually two mirrored (the dividing line in yellow) rule of thirds (in purple) images in the same frame.


The point is that frame composi on rules are actually not as strict as they rst appear as long as there is a sense to the structure even if youre unbalancing the image. Understanding all of these rules will help you break
them and adapt them to your own needs.

About Danny Santos

Freelance writer, lmmaker, actor, musician, and visual ar st. Wri ng online professionally for 4-plus years and has produced and performed in over a dozen lms and webseries. He has also been everything from a social
media consultant to managing a JUNO award winning musician.
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