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Composition as a language


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#1 Philippa Muller

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Posted 04 June 2014 - 05:12 AM

Hello,

I'm a Cinematography student, busy starting a Thesis about Composition and I'm struggling to find a niche in this subject. Therefore I'd like to find out what questions/challenges arise most commonly about composition in a production?

 

Reading material I've looked at briefly:

Picture Composition for film and television - Peter Ward

Mastering Composition - Ian Roberts

The Somnambulist: Photographs - Ralph Gibson 

 

It would be great to hear some of your thoughts as working professionals in the industry.

What challenges do you commonly find in composing a moving image? 

 

 

"Everybody immediately responds to subject matter in art.  
A picture of a butterfly and a picture of a snake do not get the same response.

In addition to subject matter*, the formal aspects of visual composition are like the grammar of a language... When children learn art, it is like learning to read and write the language of vision. When they develop a style of expressing visual ideas, it helps them become visual poets. " Marvin Bartel: Drawing to learn drawing: 2010

 

 


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#2 Phillip Mosness

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Posted 16 June 2014 - 06:04 AM

Hello Phillipa,

Since no one else has chimed in yet I thought I'd start.

Firstly, I'm not a Professional cinematographer, I'm a storyboard artist for animation. Many of the principles apply just the same, though, especially when it comes to composition.

Before anything else, I might suggest that whatever thesis you decide on, that it's a good rule of thumb to narrow it down pretty tightly so you don't end up spreading yourself too thin over too broad a subject. Obviously, entire books are written on the general subject of composition.

Also I'd recommend another book that I love by Bruce Block.

http://www.focalpres.../9780240807799/

His general ideas focus on 'contrast and affinity' as it relates to visual storytelling and symbolism. 

 I'll give you some of the challenges I face in my storyboards as well as what little I've done in live action.

Is my composition clear? Does it have good silhouette value? In other words, would the scene 'read' to a viewer if it were reduced to black and white? This concept is common in animation as it relates to character's body-language and performance, but you see it in movies, paintings, etc.(The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello, 2005)

Am I conveying what the story needs to get across at this point? Revealing information to a viewer that they need at that moment, and if so, how? In a clever and entertaining way visually?

Is the composition reinforcing a story point? Like if a character is feeling lost, alone, insignificant, do you put the camera low and up at them to make the appear huge in the frame? Or do you put the camera high up looking down on them so they are small in the frame, perhaps with strong, angled, sharp shapes to create visual danger? 

How do we want the audience to relate to a shot?

Do we want them uncomfortably close to a subject. Abstractly far away?  Eye level? Maybe it's a P.O.V. of a child and so we're seeing compositions from a lower level.

Is a character experiencing calm moments at points, signified by more balanced shapes with the camera locked down,  only to be contrasted by unbalanced hand-held shots when things are more chaotic? Maybe work is boring and repetitive, so the composition is flat with left/right motion. But then home life is boisterous and the camera is in motion as characters in in and out of deep space.

Are the compositions becoming more intense as a scene gets more intense? Like angles getting progressively stronger when Orson Welles kills the man in the motel room in Touch of Evil.

So another challenge might be whether or not something is even physically possible where you're shooting. Let's say you're on a low budget movie and you have a lot more limitations on what you can do. Maybe the location you have can't accommodate something you had in mind so you rework a way to get across the emotion, or whatever, with the elements you have at hand.

Before I sign off I'll mention in the challenge that's inherent in aspect ratio.

These days it's mostly 16x9 on tv and 1.85 or 2.35 for film, but for decades most movies were in the 1.33 'canvas' so when things got wider, I'm sure it was like reworking the mindset. Some filmmakers didn't really like the wider canvas. Fritz Lang said of CinemaScope: “It's only good for funerals and snakes.” ... Others found ways of creating compositions withing the canvas, framing things through doorways etc.

Years ago we started boarding in 16x9 panels assuming the TV's would be going that direction, but we still had to compose withing a 4x3 within the panel since most people at the time would be viewing the shows on tube TV's. Lot of empty space on the edges of those boards.

When I first start thumb nailing a script, my biggest hurdle is where to put the camera so that basic screen direction can be maintained throughout the sequence.

OK that's all I've got today.

Best of luck!


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#3 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 17 June 2014 - 02:20 AM

Books can be useful but film is a dynamic media. Cinematography is about images and composition that are nearly constantly moving that's why I would reccommend, if you haven't already seen it:

 

Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography

 

Perhaps the best doc. on cinematography ever made to date. You can't understand the language of film without seeing in in action. Why does a single light set in just the right place at just the right moment speak volumes about the character standing in that light. Film noir explains this beautifully in it's use of lighting and composition to create mood and atomosphere.

 

The thing is with almost every DVD or Bluray there is an extras mode where you can listen to the director's commentary on where and why he did what he did. There are also lots of videos on youtube and elsewhere that can help explain the cinematic language and teach you to speak it in your work. I mention noir because it is the easiest way to see how expressive light alone can be made to add production value to you Mise en scene. There are some other doc. videos out these you might look for as well:

 

Cinematographer Style

No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies

The Cutting Edge: The Magic of Movie Editing

Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream

Light Keeps Me Company

 (on Youtube)

PBS American Cinema (short series)

 (on Youtube)

The Rules of Film Noir

 (on Youtube)

Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light

Side by Side

Writing with Light: Vittorio Storaro

ADM:DOP – Anthony Dod Mantle: Director of Photography

Tell Them Who You Are (Haskell Wexler)

Don’t Try this at Home

The Man Who Shot Chinatown (John Alonzo)

 

Check these out the look for some more on your own!


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#4 George Ebersole

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Posted 21 June 2014 - 03:22 AM

Hello,

I'm a Cinematography student, busy starting a Thesis about Composition and I'm struggling to find a niche in this subject. Therefore I'd like to find out what questions/challenges arise most commonly about composition in a production?

 

Reading material I've looked at briefly:

Picture Composition for film and television - Peter Ward

Mastering Composition - Ian Roberts

The Somnambulist: Photographs - Ralph Gibson 

 

It would be great to hear some of your thoughts as working professionals in the industry.

What challenges do you commonly find in composing a moving image? 

 

 

"Everybody immediately responds to subject matter in art.  
A picture of a butterfly and a picture of a snake do not get the same response.

In addition to subject matter*, the formal aspects of visual composition are like the grammar of a language... When children learn art, it is like learning to read and write the language of vision. When they develop a style of expressing visual ideas, it helps them become visual poets. " Marvin Bartel: Drawing to learn drawing: 2010

 

 

Wide shot = comedy

 

Close up = drama

 

Well, those were the basics.  There are variations of the theme.  As a "language" though?  Well, I think most people have a good understanding of cinematic language in terms of watching films.  Teaching them what shots mean from a director's or DP's POV is something else.

 

I rarely worked on features, so there weren't many challenges.  Corporate video is essentially whatever shot is needed for a scene.

 

Beyond that, the skies the limit.  Like the book on cinematography says, there is an element of taste and artistic skill involved.


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#5 Philippa Muller

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Posted 03 July 2014 - 05:57 AM

*Phillip Mosness

Thank you for this thorough response. I am busy prepping for a pixelation which we'll be turning into a stop-motion animation with scale sized characters. I'll keep your notes in mind. The books look like a great source to look into. Thanks for the time. 

 

 

*James Steven Beverly

I'll have a look at the documentaries you suggested. Thank you for giving me such a big list. 

 

*George Ebersole

I see what you're saying. It seems to be a very natural and obvious thing (to read composition) even for audiences 'non-filmmakers'. It'll be quite a challenge to narrow this down tightly and find something eye opening. Thank you for the insight. 

 

Kind regards!


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Glidecam

rebotnix Technologies

Technodolly

Broadcast Solutions Inc

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Rig Wheels Passport

Abel Cine

Media Blackout - Custom Cables and AKS

FJS International, LLC

Metropolis Post

CineTape

Aerial Filmworks

Tai Audio

Wooden Camera