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In cinematography, composition refers to the frame of the image and how the elements of the mise-en-scène appear in it. Composition guidelines must be observed when telling stories visually, as in filmmaking. Useful conventions are applied to make heroes stronger, villain ominous, generate anxiety, give the audience tranquility, and more…

Film Scholar's Insight

Composition rules and conventions are older than cinema and photography. Most of the concepts in this page have been used for thousands of years in painting. Filmmakers and photographers have borrowed many techniques from painters and used them as a springboard for new ideas and practices.

Lead Room

If a character is looking frame left, then he should be placed frame right. This makes the framing comfortable because the subject is looking at the open space in front of him. This open space is called lead room or lead space.Lead Room space compostion

If the actors were frame left, looking frame left, then the empty space would be behind them. This doesn't feel right because they would be looking at the edge of the frame. The proximity to the frame would generate a claustrophobic undertone that could upset some viewers.

Notice that when two shots of two actors in different sides of the screen are intercut together, the audience surmises that the actors are looking to one another, regardless of where they are.


Rule of Thirds

Another basic composition principle is called Rule of Thirds. To follow it, one must imagine the frame with two vertical lines and two horizontal lines, as to create three vertical sections of the same dimensions and three vertical sections also of the same size. The result is something like this:

Rule of Thirds Composition

The intersections of the lines are points of interest, where important objects are often placed. These points of interest are comfortable to the eye, thus the middle portion of the frame are kept "empty" or clear.

Filmmaker's Insight

Filmmakers, like any other group of artists, like to break rules. The guidelines explained in this pages are just some basic concepts that any cinematographer or camera operator should know and apply. In some circumstances, however, it's okay to stray away from these rules.

Overlooking the norm is acceptable with motivation and purpose. With practice, you should be able to conceptualize extraordinary compositions and make them work in your favor. Consider, for example, the two types of composition below.

Static Composition

Compositions with the majority of lines being horizontal or vertical are called Static Composition. In theory, horizontal and vertical lines are somewhat soothing, calm, tranquil...

static composition cinematography hero

Notice how the the Emperor in Hero (2002) is not in none of the intersections of the Rule of Thirds. Indeed, he is right in the middle of the frame. The symmetry of the shot communicates the perfection of the palace and intensifies the situation. It is as though only a sacred or regal place could be so symmetrically perfect.

Dynamic Composition

When a composition has many diagonal lines it is called Dynamic Composition. The dynamism or excitement comes from the fact the diagonals are somewhat unsettling (as opposed to a static compositions that communicate peace and tranquility).

dynamic composition cinematography

As shown in the example above, one easy way to make shots dynamic is with an ultra high camera angle looking down at the subject. Depending on how camera is positioned, the natural lines of the environment will look diagonal.


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