Top Ten Tips to Improve Your Cinematic Compositions
Top Ten Tips from Gustavo Mercado to Improve Your Cinematic Compositions
1. Use a director’s viewfinder, a still camera, or any other instrument that allows you to create a frame to see the world around you. Good compositions work not only because of what is included in the frame, but also because of what is left out of it. Using any device (even your hands) to create a frame will allow you to train your eye and better understand the visual relationships of the elements contained within it.
2. Know what your lenses can and cannot do. The lens you choose can radically alter the visual relationships between elements in your frame; understanding how different lenses affect space, the look of your subjects, and the amount of light you can work with is fundamental if you want to have complete control over your images.
3. Use depth of field as a creative element of your composition. Choosing what is in and out of focus is one of the most powerful ways to control the information contained in your frame, and therefore shape what an audience gets out of your compositions.
4. Have a clear understanding behind the narrative function of your composition. A good storyteller knows how to emphasize certain moments in a story and details in a frame. It is imperative that you understand the dramatic purpose behind the moment you are capturing so that you can arrange the visual elements within the frame accordingly. Ask yourself: what do I want the audience to get out of this particular shot and how can I make it express that?
5. Know the basic rules of composition and why they work. While this might seem obvious at first, the key here is not only to be familiar with the rules, but also to understand how and why they function, in essence, why did they become rules in the first place? Only when you know the concept behind the rule can you apply it in an expressive way.
6. Learn how to break the rules. Every rule was created by individuals not following the rules; somebody decided to place a camera really close to a subject one day and gave birth to the close up. Of course, breaking the rules intelligently only works after you learn them (see previous tip)!
7. Be familiar with the limitations and advantages of all your equipment. Creating visually compelling compositions requires not only your artistic insight, but also your technical skills. You may have an amazing composition in your mind’s eye that gets completely undone by the time you shoot it because you were unaware your camera could not run at a particular frame rate, or you did not have enough lights to get the look you wanted.
8. Keep in mind how each individual composition will function when juxtaposed with the rest of the images in your film, and be aware of how their interaction adds meaning as a whole. Whether you intend to or not, your story will have an image system at work, so you should have a plan for how every composition you create fits within this framework.
9. Make it a habit to scan the entire frame before you roll camera. Even experienced directors of photography fall into the trap of getting so caught up by a single aspect of a composition that they forget to look at every visual element in the frame, often ruining what would have been beautiful shots.
10. Do your research. I find it extremely helpful to create a portfolio of images in preparation for a project. It can include pictures taken from magazines, examples from still photography books, paintings, other films, and any other image that you feel captures the tone, mood, and visual palette you want to implement for your film.
Excerpted from The Filmmaker’s Eye: Learning (and Breaking) the Rules of Cinematic Composition by Gustavo Mercado© 2010 Taylor & Francis Group. All rights Reserved
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