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We all know that photographic composition has certain rules like the rule of thirds, diagonal lines, etc. I am wondering whether those same rules can be applied in cinematography. Can they?

I discussed this with an artist in my lab and he said they can be applied. His argument was that a film is no more than a set of shots, so a rule applied to a film will have a similar influence to when it is applied to a shot.

I am kind of hesitated to accept that argument for two reasons. The first is that many of the composition rules in photography have been established based on the assumption that we have to understand the scene through that single shot. For example, aligning an object with the diagonal lines of the shot gives the feeling that the object has some movement or dynamism. But in a film, it is easy to see the movement/dynamism in any object, simply because we can see how it moves. So where does the diagonal lines rule stand in this?!

Second, because in two of the books I have about cinematography, I didn't find any of the photographic composition rules.

So again, can photographic composition rules be used in cinematography? If not, is there any suggestion on how to integrate with minor modifications?

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Watch Stanley Kubrick movies ;) –  nuno_cruz May 24 '12 at 11:45
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5 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Absolutely they can. My roommate in college was studying film, and in the classes on cinematography they taught about compositional rules such as rules of thirds, etc. The fact that the picture now has motion in it doesn't negate how we emotionally process a picture. The feeling of dynamism is enhanced when the camera is moving diagonally along a road that is also diagonal through the scene. The same as the fact that the same effect is minimized when the movement is horizontal.

Essentially, in cinematography you have a few more compositional tools available to you. There are two classes of shots:

  • Static camera with some elements moving on screen. Common example would be dialog shots.
  • Moving camera with changing perspective. Common example would be panning shots across the scene.

The static camera cases can directly apply the rules of photographic composition, which we in turn stole from the art community. If you pay attention in most of the major films, you will rarely if ever see the speaking actor's head centered in the middle of the screen.

The moving cases will provide some new compositional rules to apply, but the basics don't change. In fact the static compositional guidelines provide a good framework to plan out moving camera shots before investing the film to see if they work out.

A couple more thoughts about cinematic composition: I've seen movies where the diagonal was used for the path of actors. For example battle scenes where two armies are clashing, and you can see the line of soldiers. In other words, the action can be placed on the "power lines" that we might use in static composition. The camera is still stationary, but the movement in the scene is more grand.

Also, when you consider musicals and dance movies, that is where all the cinematic composition stops get pulled out. We've all seen the aerial shot with the dancers making patterns on the dance floor. That's using the compositional technique of repeating shapes to lend more interest applied to moving objects.

What I'm getting at is that while we photographers have to capture everything in one shot and imply the sense of motion, cinematographers are not limited by that and can actually capture motion. The rules of composition can help with the staging and planning of the scenes. It's not uncommon for directors to take input from their top cinematographers, knowing that if it doesn't look good on film people won't watch it.

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That is a very enlightening answer, thanks very much. I will keep this question opened for the moment to get more ideas from others. If you have more ideas, don't hesitate to share them, I will read them all :-) –  Promather Feb 4 '11 at 17:05
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They using it always. Of course not all directors/directors of photography, but for example Spielbierg movies. Near all scenes using rule of third and/or golden rule. Simple tricks always works. Rule of third, three plans etc. Here samples, not "pure" rule of third: Subjects in strong points, rule of third and three planes same The Color Purple - same rules used Schindler's List, nice usage of perspective line in rule of third

Just few random samples from the web. He always using same tricks as you see, but doing it great.

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I'm not a movie critic and I don't shoot movies, either. So if you think this is simplistic or misleading or just plain wrong, I can't offer up any defense. Also, I'm assuming that you plan on watching some acclaimed movies to research how composition has been done well in movies.

One of the most interesting things I've learned about movies (from a technical aspect) is that the director can choose between several different aspect ratios when shooting their movie (a similar concept to when we crop photos or choose print sizes like 4"x3" (1.33) or 5"x4" (1.25)); a good director will choose the aspect ratio that helps them tell the story they want to tell, and then that aspect ratio will of course influence the composition of all the scenes.

Now I wrote that paragraph to explain this paragraph: if/when you watch some well-crafted movies to see how others have composed their scenes, you need to make sure you watch the movie in the originally-filmed aspect ratio, not a pan-and-scan fullscreen (4:3) version, which will have cut out portions of the images at the sides. And even more important than that: when you pick which movies you want to watch to understand how great directors composed their scenes, you need to remember that for the past several decades movies had to be shot with two aspect ratios in mind: the widescreen format in which they'd be shown in theaters and the fullscreen format in which they'd be viewed on video or TV.

So my advice would be to pick some great movies (like from the AFI Top 100 or some other curated list) that were created with a specific aspect ratio in mind (preferably the aspect ratio that you plan to use) and see how those directors composed their scenes, keeping an eye out throughout for the photography rules you know and how they're used or broken. That probably means either movies that pre-date TV or movies from the past couple years when widescreen TVs became more prevalent in the home.

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It is probably most accurate to think of the basic composition rules of photography as a subset of the rules that we use in cinematography. Examples of rules that apply to both photography and cinematography include things like:

  • The rule of thirds
  • Diagonal lines
  • Geometric shapes
  • Repeated patterns
  • Non-standard angles
  • Color palette
  • Depth of Field
  • Choice of lens

Whereas there are many rules that only apply to cinematography because of the addition of motion, dialog, and story (not that photography can't tell story, but cinema can generally tell more lengthy and complicated stories). Examples of rules that apply only to the discipline of cinematography include things like:

  • Camera motion
  • The way objects and actors are placed in the frame
  • Cuts between shots/scenes
  • Racking Focus

The really interesting thing is that in photography if you have poor composition, the picture will simply stink unless it contains something so compelling that it overcomes its lack of composition (tabloid photos are an example of lousy composition, but compelling content which allows people to 'forgive' the photographs shortcomings). In cinema there are plenty of directors who completely ignore the rules of composition but get away with it because they craft stories that are compelling enough that it often doesn't matter that the shots aren't very interesting. (See the collected works of Kevin Smith for examples of inept composition... But they keep giving him money because people spend money to see the stories he tells...)

The really great directors, on the other hand, are masters of the storytelling craft and the craft of composition. You can watch anything by Scorsese, Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, Capra, or Fellini (for example) and see composition in every single frame of their films and how it adds immense depth to the storytelling...

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There are definitely some differences, but there are some similarities. Among them are:

  1. Keep the scene as clutter free as possible, unless there is a specific reason for the clutter.
  2. Keep a tight focus on the subject in general works better than distant shots.
  3. Alot of lighting tricks also apply the same in each realm
  4. Rule of thirds is definitely a good thing.

There is alot more tools available, and as a result, cinematographers tend to focus on different elements than photographers, but many of the same rules still apply.

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Thanks very much for the answer. If you have more ideas, don't hesitate to share them :-) –  Promather Feb 4 '11 at 17:06
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