Everyone likes a good story. And arguably, story is the determining factor to “make or break” a film, often prevailing over other elements. But even the greatest of stories needs to be told properly. When it comes to films, as it is an audiovisual medium, there are plenty of devices at the filmmaker’s disposal that aid storytelling. Particularly speaking of the “visual” side, there is obviously, cinematography. While heavily linked to other visual elements such as production design or an actor’s performance, cinematography also influences these other elements, to the point that it can shape them. In particular, cinematography is comprised of components such as composition, which is a basic tool in terms of storytelling, especially when mastered.
In the same way there are different set structures that can be used to mould a storyline when script writing, there are also basic set rules for composition. Some of these rules are for example, the “Golden Ratio”, the “One-Point Perspective” or the “Rule of Thirds”.
The first is based on the Fibonacci Sequence and can be found in nature and the human body and has been used in countless works of art and design. This ratio has proved to be very pleasing to the human eye, therefore using this sequence as a reference when framing, it is possible to get an interesting shot or picture straight away.
The second is immediately associated to Stanley Kubrick, who used it widely throughout his filmography, eventually becoming one of his staple framing techniques. It consists of creating a single vanishing point, by framing in a way so all the lines converge on that same point. This creates a sense of depth, as it adds a third plane to a two-dimensional picture.
The “Rule of Thirds” is an imaginary grid that stems from dividing the frame into thirds, both vertically and horizontally. The dividing lines form nine boxes with four intersections, which can be used for reference when framing. In fact, a very common practice is to place important characters or objects on these intersections to emphasise their importance within a shot. Like with the Golden Rule, this is also a way to create an immediately interesting shot, as it is also visually appealing.
Beyond the Rule of Thirds
Learning the basics of these rules and then mastering them is very important, like gaining a solid knowledge of the basic techniques of any craft. It is then, when these can be taken to the next level, which might mean departing from their more traditional use to bend and break them for effect. This takes us beyond the Rule of Thirds, to an apparently simpler approach at first sight, but that in reality contains a lot of potential as a storytelling tool. If instead of dividing the frame into thirds, we divide it down the middle both vertically and horizontally, we get the “Quadrant System”, a grid with only four boxes instead of nine. With this grid as base it is possible to achieve unconventionally framed shots that can give life to a scene. Especially when it comes to highlighting a character’s situation or to delve into its personality, thoughts or to convey certain feelings to the audience. The TV series Mr. Robot makes a constant use of this method. In this show, characters are often “awkwardly” placed in the corner of the frame, which increases the amount of negative space, i.e., the space around and between the subjects of an image. This makes characters seem small in comparison to their surroundings, which conveys feelings of isolation, loneliness and powerlessness.
Furthermore, the high amounts of negative space produce a jarring effect on the viewer, especially since characters are “out of place” in the frame, and therefore this creates visual tension because we are not used to it.
In addition to negative space, visual tension is also comprised of gazing direction and breathing room. Gazing direction is the way in which the character is looking and breathing room is the distance between the character’s head or face and the edge of the frame. Both can be combined like in the following picture to create visual tension. In this example, placing Elliot so close to the edge of the frame with so little breathing room creates a sense of unease and discomfort.
Another use of placing characters in the boxes can be to establish dominance. When two characters share the same box it usually signifies confrontation. In a dialog, this can represent a power struggle between the two characters.
A similar effect is achieved by dividing between top and bottom. In this show, another way of representing characters’ insecurities and doubts is by placing them at the bottom of the frame, and making them small in comparison to their surroundings.
When defining the cinematography based on this system, it is important to be aware that not every single shot might need to be framed in an unconventional way, therefore it is important to know when to use this technique, in favour of storytelling. A combination of asymmetrical (or unconventionally framed) and symmetrical shots might give the visuals a right balance and will boost your story by having the right contrasts when emphasising particular aspects of the same in regards to characters, feelings or moods and even places.
Juan Cruz is a well-rounded filmmaker based in London. He currently works as a camera technician, continuously learning and developing skills in advanced camera systems used in high-end TV drama and feature films.
In his own films, he likes exploring technology-related dystopias. He also loves comedy and playing drums.