3 Tips to Better Shot Composition
Even if you don’t want to be a DOP or Director and aren’t deciding the coverage of a scene, it’s still important to have a basic understanding of how shot composition works and what rules need to be followed to ensure the scene can be cut together smoothly in the edit. You will find all departments using shot descriptions every day explaining what is being set up so you will need a brief understanding of the terms to work efficiently on set. You may have studied this in-depth at college but here is a quick recap for those who may have slept in on lecture days.
Shot Composition – THE 180-DEGREE RULE
The 180-degree rule often referred to as ‘the line’ or ‘crossing the line’, refers to which side of the action the cameras are placed. For example, let’s say you had a simple interview set up with an interviewer and subject sitting opposite each other. If you shoot the subject from the left side of the interviewer, the line is drawn along the left of the two characters. So as to ‘not cross the line’ you will then place the cameras on the same side when filming the interviewer.
If you were to shoot from the other side, having ‘crossed the line’, it would appear to the audience that the interviewer and subject are on the same side and is rather baffling to the viewer. (For more on the 180-degree rule click here)
This rule becomes more complex in scenes that involve lots of movement or multiple actors. The DOP will sometimes break this rule by starting on the correct side of the line and doing a camera move through the line to finish with the subject on the opposite side. This reduces confusion to the viewer as they see the perspective change as the camera moves. Most of the time you will not notice this while viewing unless it is dreadfully blundered, in which case you will likely laugh self-righteously.
A good little exercise is to watch a film and consider where the line can be drawn for each scene. You may even notice when the rule gets broken intentionally or accidentally.
Screen direction refers to which side the subject enters or leaves the frame. If a character leaves screen left and is in continuous motion, e.g. walking down the street, then they should enter the next frame from the opposite side (screen right) to ensure the movement appears continuous. If the subject leaves the screen left and enters from the same direction (screen left), it appears they are returning to where they came from.
You can experiment with this by filming people entering and leaving from different screen directions. Then edit the footage to create different journeys with the same content. You’ll notice directors using a mix of screen directions throughout films to create different perspectives of time. A mixture of screen directions in a montage will create a sense of the passing of time and a large distance traveled.
Shot composition and shot sizes are regularly discussed on set so it’s good to have a brief understanding of this so you don’t look like a fool when you don’t know what they are talking about. The frame can be described in multiple ways but often they will be defined by how much of the subject is in a shot.
Here are the main terms that are used:
- Wide Shot – the subject and all their surroundings are included in the frame.
- Long Shot – the subject’s full body is contained in the frame.
- Mid Shot – the subject is framed from the waist up.
- Close Up (CU) – a portion of the subject is in the frame showing greater detail. E.g. A close up of the subject’s face as they speak.
- Extreme Close Up (ECU) – the frame shows only a small portion of the subject in great detail, focusing just on this one element. E.g. An extreme close up of an eye.
Matt Webb is the author of Setlife: A Guide To Getting A Job in Film (And Keeping It). He is an Assistant Director with credits including The Great Gatsby, Mad Max: Fury Road, Hacksaw Ridge, Pirates of the Carribean and Alien: Covenant.
Setlife: A Guide To Getting A… is a must-have guide designed to prepare you for what happens on a typical day on a film set. Matt Webb’s no-fuss, practical tips are essential reading for anyone chasing a career in the film industry. The book is available for $25 from Amazon.
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