VISUAL COMPOSITION I
Chapter One – Basics:
For the most part, reading this chapter, named “Basics” was really a refresher more than actually learning something. If anything, the content of Chapter 1 helped clarify even more film production terms for me. Specifically, the chapter described in great detail all the factors that must be considered while setting up a shot. I found a lot of my previous film and photography experience helping fill in any gaps and the reading had me go, “OH! So that’s what that was for!” numerous times.
Starting with exposure, which is how much light comes through the lens, the explanation for f-stops is always welcome. The whole fraction thing (like f/2 or f/16) can get somewhat confusing, especially when you’re right in the middle of a film set with time limitations and antsy actors. For me, what I have learned is that the “higher” the fraction (f/2 = 1/2 = 50%), the more light is being let in. Conversely, the “lower” the fraction (f/16 = 1/16 = 6.25%) the less light is being let in. The new thing I have learned though, was the existence of t/stops, which are more accurate f/stops that are consistent on different lens (f/stops can vary depending the lens, apparently…another thing I did not know).
Another big lesson I ended up learning from this chapter was the clarification of color temperature. For the most part, I always understood that light gave off different colors, thus different moods and tones. In a cinematic sense, orange light depicts warmer temperature while blue light depicts colder scenes. What interested me the most during the reading was color filters. I thought they were used more for making scenes a certain color (which they do) but they’re actually used more for balancing existing light in a scene and converting it to a more appropriate color temperature. I especially made note of the different types of temperature and their corresponding Kelvin measurement (Daylight = 5400K, Shade = 6600K, so on).
Finally, exposure is the last segment from Chapter 1 where I learned something new. Exposure has always been a confusing factor to me, mostly because I could never tell what was a “correct” exposure and how to determine it. I would only ever use my eye to see if something on screen seemed too dark or too light. I also know how ISO works for still photography but actual video is a different beast of its own. So for the most part, I just applied the techniques of photography to adjusting ISO for filming. Even then, I never really knew how to go about fixing exposure. The chapter does an incredibly good job explaining it. White color tends to bleed over other colors so a large amount of white can tend to drown out what is being seen in the viewfinder of a camera. So you have to balance it with the use of a light meter. In my personal experience, I always just aimed for 0, which was the middle of over/underexposed and never really questioned it. Light or reflective meters work with the idea that the “theoretical average subject” is considered gray and reflects 18% of the light hitting it. That 18% would be the “0” that I aim for in the light meter readings. This means that the exposure is just right. So with this, I now know that if i want to make a subject darker/lighter, I just have to manipulate the exposure a certain way (under for dark and over for lighter). Even better, I was never really sure of the purpose of a gray-card but now that’s pretty self-explanatory. More so, I was made aware by the reading that there are hand-held devices that determine the 18% grayness of any subject, which is something I would be very much interested in purchasing for future film projects I may work on.
Chapter Two – Composition:
Chapter Two primarily focused on composition and how to frame up shots for filming. A lot of the terms I picked up after working on numerous film shoots and sets but I still had a lot of fun reading about them, mostly because the reason I even got into film was because I wanted to pursue being a cameraperson to play around with cameras and get “cool” shots. That being said, one of the first things said in the chapter is that “the camera is selective. You decide what the viewers will see.” For me, I like to have that control because I’m a story teller after all.
The chapter goes on to delve into techniques like using a tripod and the age-old theory, the rule of thirds. Most of this was pretty intuitive for me such as finding some sort of support (like monopods to leaning against a wall) while filming to reduce camera shake or lining up a subject or point of interest at one of the four points where the rule of thirds lines intersect. I found the segment on leading looks and head room to also reinforce how the rule of thirds is essentially commonplace and effective in composing a shot. Many of the examples showcase, unbalanced and balanced compositions with the balanced shots obeying to the rule of thirds. Here’s a picture for some clarification:
The most valuable segments I read in this chapter, however, were the balance segments, specifically the portions that discussed balance in terms of mass and color. I, for one, never took that into account. At least, I never did consciously. Yet it makes sense, if there’s a large object in the frame, with nothing else around it, the effect is static and uninteresting (or the opposite, it’s too busy/distracting). By placing a smaller object some distance away within the frame, the frame is balanced and creates a flow. The clever thing about this is that you do not need to physically balance out mass. You can manipulate a shot, with the use of depth, to make larger objects appear smaller (or vice versa, smaller objects appear larger) and still create that unison in a frame.
More so, color is definitely something that goes over my head when I film. The human eye, according to the book, naturally goes to white or brightly colored areas of the frame (this is exactly what happened when I looked at the corresponding example, my eye immediately jumped to the white portion of the picture provided). This means that whenever I frame up a shot, I should consider making bright areas where my subject lies OR I balance out the color one of two ways: another bright color somewhere else in the frame or a larger, dominating object that forces attention away from a distracting color.
Many of these are, again, intuitive but very easy to forget when you’re in the midst of shooting. Distracting backgrounds, for example, are a pretty common problem but if you’re aware of compositional principles, all you have to do is move the camera or subject and frame it up a different way, as long as you abide by the compositional principles that are proven to work (although, as long as you know how those principles work, I think you are free to break them responsibly). The chapter ends by leaving these final guiding words of wisdom: The human eye has a tendency to cancel out unimportant details, but the camera sees and records everything equally…when you learn to see the wires [problems] before you take the picture, then you can call yourself a cameraperson. Essentially, take a few minutes before you film to mentally frame shots so your camerawork is made just a little bit easier.
Chapter Five – Camera Moves:
To my surprise, Chapter Five was short and sweet but actually provided me with a bulk of new lessons that I formally was never told. While kind of obvious thinking about it now, there are only really 5 things you can do with a camera:
- Zoom-In (from wide shot to close-up) – usually highlights something important
- Zoom-Out (from close-up to wide shot) – usually reveals new information
- Pans (horizontal movement) – usually reveals new information
- Tilt (vertical movement) – usually reveals new information
- Combination of the 4 movements
A lot of the chapter really then focuses on how to effectively accomplish these movements. For example, for effective pans, trying to follow something moving in the same direction as the pan helps lead viewers (to me, I visualized it like a leading line that physically moves).
Besides that, I was never told of these two important rules of camera movement:
- Begin and end every move with a well-composed static shot. Why? Because it’s very distracting to cut from a static composition to a move that’s already in progress (and vice versa). I can literally name at least 10 different times where knowing that rule would have made my editing for several of my pieces of film work that much more polished.
- Always move from an uncomfortable position to a comfortable position. Why? Well, to put it simply, it causes less strain on you as you work a camera. The less strain allows you to control the movement and make it look that much smoother. Again, I thought about all the times I was the camera person for a hidden camera segment and I would contort and twist myself around walls, the ground, trees, and tables just to get a pan shot and while I got the shot, I definitely got some bruises (hidden camerawork is really difficult to pull off, let me just throw that out there).
The idea that stuck out to me, however, was this: “A camera move should have a purpose.” Similar to what I learned in ICM502 and designing webpages, a button on a website should have a purpose and if it does not, it should not be on the page. In game design, a gameplay mechanic should have a purpose as well, to enhance or encourage a certain style of play. Yet throwing together a series of buttons or a list of mechanics does not make a website or game better. If those functionalities do not serve to enhance the experience or lead the user, they’re detrimental and take-away from the illusion. The same goes for camera movement. As the book puts it, “it should in some way contribute to your viewers’ understanding of what they’re seeing. If it doesn’t the move distracts and calls attention to itself.” For me, whenever I design or frame up the shot, the leading question I ask myself is “Why? What is the purpose of this?”
Chapter Six – Montages:
Chapter Six was undoubtedly the most fun to read because who is really going to complain about reading a page? On a more serious note, I guess I never really thought of the definition of a montage. I just thought it was just a series of different shots of a certain topic. For the most part, it is but the practicality of montages extend to condensing time or distance, setting a mood, or summarizing information.
I’ve tried my hand at montages before to relative success. The book clarifies that the best way to accomplish a montage is if each shot is clearly different from the one before it; otherwise it looks like a bad cut between two similar shots of the same thing. This is where I see the rules of composition playing an important role. They can add much-needed distinction from the shots to just elevate the interest in what is being shown. At the very least, using dutch angles (unconventional angles that create subconscious tension for viewers) is an easy way to film a montage.
*The following reading summaries are taken from several different articles. They are linked in their blue, highlighted names.*
Being the producer-type, I have always been one to advocate for pre-production planning which is exactly what this article is about. Some of these steps do not necessarily have a context to the content we are learning about but they are still valuable to know as a general rule of thumb. As someone who has put on two live televised musicals, the only reason they were done successfully was because I came up with a plan, a schedule, and about 300 different lists that covered everything from props to equipment to shoot times to a breakdown of every single scene in the musical (that is one serious condensed summary of the work I did by the way). This is because as the article states, “too many video productions start with a “cool” idea and end up being partially planned and inevitably failing”. A lot of what I did is almost entirely covered by the following steps:
- Define your business objective: What do you want your video to do? What do you want to happen when people finish watching? This step allows you to think and focus about outcomes
- Define your audience: What does the intended audience care about and how does your video satisfy those needs? You need to define and understand what kind of people you want to create a connection to with your video/content. Knowing your audience further shapes your overall goal.
- Develop your message: What are the themes, ideas, and topics you want to get across? What specific problem am I trying to solve and how do I communicate the solution to that problem? What information do you want the audience to come away with basically
- What’s your budget: How much can you/should you spend making your video and idea come to life?
- Planned distribution: Where, how, and why will people watch the video? A broadcast audience is very different from a professional business audience and even more different to people watching on their phones.
- Concept – what’s the big idea: The majority of video production concepts are driven by two factors, practical and creative imperatives. This creates value. It’s the heart of the video and should explain what is going on.
- Treatment and Storyboard: The treatment is the summary of the concept or idea of your video. A storyboard fleshes out the treatment and the overall idea by outlining various important sections of the video. This also allows you to physically describe and show your vision to others for their clarity. The storyboard breaks down the treatment into:
- Script/Narration – what is being said by whom on-screen or by voice-over
- What is being shown on screen – where and what action is taking place and who or what is in each scene
- What other elements are there? Music, animations, text, logos, CGI
- Length of video: Online attention spans are consistently shrinking and becoming smaller. Thus, “shorter” is a general rule of thumb to aim for. This makes you cut down on your message and focus on the key details. However, shorter is also just a guideline. Some video projects may need longer duration because they require more information to be passed along. Usually the length is figured out through the storyboarding process.
- Approvals: This is mostly important in larger organizations where the chain of command has to look over all the production materials throughout the entire production to ensure the message is being properly explained and executed. It’s like a system for double-checking and “proof-reading” for errors.
- Pre-Production Meetings: These meetings allow that everyone working on the project is on the same page but also able to provide different, useful perspectives. They ensure nothing falls through the cracks and if a problem is encountered, more than one mind working to find a solution is a safe snd secure bet to actually coming up with a solution (or even a new idea or direction). “The better the collaboration, the better the outcome.”
- Schedule and Production Planning: Shoots are logistically challenging as there are always a tremendous amount of moving parts to account for. As a result, there’s a lot that can go wrong. So figuring out:
- Locations – Where are you filming?
- Permits – Do you need waivers or permits to film or use a location/actor/equipment?
- Crew – who is the production crew? How many? Who is on what position?
- Equipment – what kind of equipment are you using? How many equipment do you need? Do you need props or specialized tools?
- Talent – Who is on camera? Are they prepped with the necessary tools/knowledge? Can they read off a teleprompter? When should they be there?
- Weather – What will the weather be like? Do you have back-up locations in case of inclement weather?
- Schedule – Do you have a shot list? Does everyone know where they have to be and when? How long will filming take?
I had the most fun reading this article mostly because I just love operating the camera and playing around with different types of shots. A lot of the shots listed are shots I knew of but never got a contextual definition for.
- The Aerial Shot – filmed from the air and is used to establish location
- The Establishing Shot – this shot is at the “head” of a scene and establishes not only the location of the scene but the mood and tones to follow in the scene
- The Close-Up – most crucial shot for cinematic storytelling and acting because it highlights the smallest of details on screen and eliminates anything distracting in the background. This is where the raw emotion from an actor can be captured and it is usually framed to show the head/face and the top of the shoulders.
- The Extreme Close-Up – this shot focuses even more so on a very specific part of an object to emphasize more intense, intimate emotions.
- The Medium Shot – this is generally framed from the waist-up and is used for dialogue. This shot allows for the inclusion of body language and the background environment to help convey a message.
- The Dolly Zoom – This shot is of the camera tracking forward while the camera zooms out or vice versa (tracking backward and zooming in). Thus the foreground stays the same while the background increases/decreases. These shots are meant for intense dramatization as the “dizzying” effect is akin to having an immense realization.
- The Over-The-Shoulder Shot – The camera is positioned over the subject’s shoulder and is primarily used for conversation between two actors in a scene. This draws the audience into the conversation and helps focus on one speaker at a time. It’s like a hybrid of the medium and close-up shots.
- The Low-Angle Shot – this shot shoots from a lower angle and upwards at a subject to make them look heroic or important or intimidating
- The High-Angle Shot – this shot shoots from a higher angle and downwards at a subject to make them look inferior, submissive, or weak in some way.
- The Two-Shot – it’s another version of the medium shot but instead of dialogue, it’s accompanied with some sort of action that helps create a relationship between the two characters.
- The Wide-Shot – this shot generally captures the entire body of a character and their environment. This can be used to establish a setting but in this case, the connection is with the actors and the environment as opposed to the environment in an establishing shot.
- The Master-Shot – this shot identifies key signifiers such as who’s in the shot and where it’s taking place. The difference this shot has to an establishing shot is that the entire action and all the actors in the scene are filmed for the duration of the take. Every action and dialogue is acted out. The master shot is like a skeleton or template of a scene, all other shots, like close-ups or over-the-shoulders, can be intercut into the master shot.
Storyboarding is a concept that I am very familiar with at this point so the article was yet another source of reminding me why storyboards are so important. Essentially storyboards are a visual representation comprised of illustrations that represent your idea and how it unfolds. It’s vital that you create a storyboard before you ever start filming. They allow you to hash out crucial details and specific ideals, scrap any ideas that do not work, and help clue in the rest of the production crew to that you’re thinking.
Professional storyboards are pretty intimidating due to the detail that is put within them. The thing is, anyone can do a storyboard as long as you can draw simple actions and stick figures. It’s about conveying the concept, not the final product. So a final draft of a story board should always include: technical details, content, verbal delivery or dialogue, set location, and the time of day.
Research to Inform:
The Avengers – I chose the scene in where the original Marvel Cinematic Universe heroes all came together as a team in The Avengers because I think it’s a perfect example of the clever use of angles. In this case, if you notice, the angle is slightly upwards, accentuating the fact that these people on screen are heroic and brave.
Frame Within A Frame:
The Shining – I chose the iconic “bicycling through the hallway” scene from The Shining to be an incredibly well done frame within a frame. The way the camera is positioned behind the boy creates this frame as we watch from his perspective as he stumbles on to the two creepy little girls. Their placement and the hallway in particular also creates another frame (with the help of the symmetry found throughout the shot)
The Matrix – I chose the “Bullet Time” sequence from the original Matrix to showcase leading lines. A lot of the shots in the film are all centered around leading lines, with many wide shots encompassing subtle poses, structures, and details pointing to a certain subject. In this scene, which starts at 2:26, the leading line here is done with the gun pointing out of frame in an angle that just leads us, to the gun holder. Also, in the background, there is an antennae (?) that is horizontal and also leads us to the same subject. Even the building behind her acts as a leading line, with the edge of the building pointing down to the general area of the subject. Finally, the roof edges serve as leading lines that help us focus on the center of the screen (which is also enhanced by the subject also being placed at one of the locations of the rule of thirds).
Visual Composition Shot List [BELOW]
Completing this shot list was definitely an experience. I actually found a lot of trouble trying to fill out the shot list. I think it’s because of what the shot list was asking for. To be more clear, they were only 10 types of compositions that the shot list was looking for. But within the directions for these 10 compositions were all of these very specific set of instructions.
For example, the very first composition was the rule of thirds. The instructions indicated I needed 4 pictures of rule of thirds. But instead of 4 different pictures that could showcase the rule of thirds, it had to be the same, one set of pictures. The first picture had to be a subject that didn’t follow the rule of thirds. The second had to be that same subject but following the rule of thirds. I totally get that, showcasing what’s right and wrong makes sense. The problem I found with it was that this was the style of instructions for almost every single composition. I found myself having to think really hard about what shots I wanted to do because I essentially had to purposefully break these compositional rules for the sake of filling out the list. At the same time, I wanted to keep the shot list varied and diverse since this portion of the project was about location scouting.
However, back to the first composition on the list: rule of thirds. The third instruction required finding a second subject WITH the first subject in frame still and then breaking the rule of thirds. The fourth question was then having the two subjects line up on the rule of thirds grid. This was such a specific requirement . The very next compositional was weight in terms of object mass. The instructions for that were that the first picture had to be a subject centered in the middle of the composition and the second picture had to be the same subject but with visual weight added to it, fleshing out the picture. Again, pretty simple but that’s not so different from rule of thirds, so it felt like I was doing the shot list wrong because the instructions were so specific, similar, and limiting. The instructions were added on more as restrictions as to what you can do to showcase different shots and locations.
While it was frustrating for me to purposefully break the rules of composition, the process certainly made me think really hard for the kind of shots I would need for the actual montage video we’ll be doing next module. It’s made me more aware of what it takes to compose a shot. It’s also got me thinking of how I can apply what I know now to shot ideas that will and won’t work before I try to attempt them, which can save valuable filming and editing time.
Pre-Production Planning Document (Montage) [CLICK BELOW]
Similar to the other pre-production planning document for the audio podcast, this planning document really helped me flesh out my idea for the video montage. As I completed the shot list portion, one thing was egging me on at the back of my mind. “How do I showcase this location I’ve picked out (in this case, I chose to do a montage on the Jersey shore, specifically of Belmar, Point Pleasant, and Long Branch, NJ because these are shore-points that are close to me and many of my friends and potential interviewees have diverse, fond experiences at these places) in an engaging montage? Then I saw that there was necessary narration involved and that got me thinking, “well, I can’t do a montage mixed to just music now”.
I focused my idea into trying to tell a story. Two ideas came to mind: a funny “mockumentary-style” following the story of a group of friends spending a day at the beach with “National Geographic-esque” narration. The other idea was a road-trip music video that showcased the beaches I would be shooting at. The end idea was really a hybrid of the two. A roadtrip music video-inspired montage that follows the story of a group of friends at the beach. I wanted to take it one step further by adding narration so these group of friends would also be interviewed and I envisioned interview style cutaways of them answering questions that could be edited together to form the narrative of a perfect beach day down the Jersey shore.
I really spent a lot of time planning out the script and subsequent storyboard. I envisioned all the key points in the video and really tried to match up corresponding visual pieces to corresponding audio/sfx/music. As a result, I have a running shot list in my mind and I can also plan out where I will be filming to get shots/when I will be filming). I can also plan to location scout an interesting but neutral place to conduct the interviews and also write up the interview questions in a way that allows the people I interview to tell their own stories (which I can go back and edit together in a way to paint a really nice message).
In the end, the whole process has allowed me to turn my frustration with the shot list into something manageable and foreseeable (and to be honest, I’m excited to get to filming).