Rules of Composition: How to Show Deeper Meaning in a Single Frame

Telling a story isn’t enough. You have to grab your audience by the eyeballs. Whether you’re a seasoned director or just learning what framing in film is, the way we see things is just as important as the things themselves. In his video essay on Drive, Tony Zhou uncovers 4 simple rules of composition that can make your shots out-of-the-box.

More...

Tell two stories at once

The more we have to take in, the more our eyes move. The more our eyes move, the more we invest. It’s a rule of composition.

By placing your stories side-by-side, you challenge the audience to keep up. You explain how your stories interact. Not to mention, you save screen time for explosions.

Take a look at Drive.

4 Rules of Composition That Will Make your Frames Pop - Drive-1

Divided by a red line, the shot tells two complementary stories at the same time. As Carey Mulligan (left) and Ryan Gosling (right) enter their respective apartments, he flashes her a longing glance while she rushes her laundry inside, barely noticing. We immediately know their relationship–lover and object of his eye.

By de-crowding the shot, the director has forced us to pick out the details, making us work to feel the tension.

Exercise

There’s a huge difference between the what’s on page and what’s on screen–what’s face value and what layers behind it.

Find a subplot in your script. Try telling it in the foreground of another scene.

Flesh out your characters

Details, details, details. A guy saying, “I love you” is a lot different than a guy saying, “I love you,” while holding out a ring.

Details, small or large, build up our stories, but can often distract us. By splitting your shot horizontally, your story can continue on top while subtextual details flourish on the bottom.

4 Rules of Composition That Will Make your Frames Pop - Drive-2

Without the bottom half of the shot from Drive, it’s an average scene–aimless chitchat you can find in any Woody Allen movie.

It’s the lower half that rounds out the characters.

4 Rules of Composition That Will Make your Frames Pop - Drive-3

Using their hands, the director gives us insight into the characters. While Cranston waves his hands like the carefree wild man he is, Mulligan grips on her child tightly. While Gosling listens uneasily, he fidgets with his rag.

Splitting your scene top and bottom gives your actors room to shine, while not distracting from the story.

Exercise

It’s not all about the face. Deepen your scene’s meaning by framing an actor’s body language. It’s these microscopic details that keep audiences engaged (and demanding a sequel).

Let your designers shine

Shifting an actor’s performance to one quadrant leaves ample space for lighting, set design, and that over excited extra to shine.

In fact, a prop can often say more than a character ever could, like this mirror in Drive.

4 Rules of Composition That Will Make your Frames Pop - Drive-4

As Mulligan occupies the left, the choice she has to make splits right–in the top right, Gosling’s reflection and in the bottom, her husband.

Composition rules, here, allowed designers time to showcase their work, telling the story through visuals.

Exercise

A well-placed prop can reflect a character’s mood, hint at foreshadowing, or even (gasp) do both.

Take a dialogue heavy scene and work the foreground into it. It’s up to you how much attention you want to give objects. Just be careful.

Underscore your characters

Two characters enter a room. They ache to be with each other, but can’t. It’s a tale as old as time.

But also kinda boring. A little conventional framing can give your scenes much-needed spin.

4 Rules of Composition That Will Make your Frames Pop - Drive-5
4 Rules of Composition That Will Make your Frames Pop - Drive-6

As Gosling and Mulligan chat, they stand in opposite quadrants. Our eyes and emotions work in tandem, wishing they’d get together and share center. In a way, the photo grid frame signals lovers to be.

And also rivals.

When Mulligan’s husband (Oscar Isaac) enters, the camera frames him in the same quadrant as Gosling.

4 Rules of Composition That Will Make your Frames Pop - Drive-7

They both occupy the same position on screen and in the plot. Mulligan, the center of their attentions, accordingly moves to center of the shot.

Following composition rules can reinforce themes too on the nose for even the best dialogue. The distance between two actors doesn’t merely allude to a relationship–it defines it.

Exercise

During film blocking, have your actors run a scene at various distances from each other. See how it changes, enhances, or undermines the central action.

Have them get right in each other’s faces, just for fun.

What are the rules of composition?

In truth, there are none.

At the end of the day, composition rules, framing in film, rule of thirds only matter, because they get us thinking about our films visually. And framing is just one of many ways to do so.

Next time you’re watching a movie or TV show, try visualizing a quadrant and see how it interprets the story.

You don’t need a Hollywood budget or Ryan Gosling’s face to make your shots drip with flare.

Although, it can’t hurt.

Like this post? Share it!

twitter-bird-bue-gray

"4 Rules of Composition That Will Make your Frames Pop." #filmmaking #indiefilm #filmmakers

Click to Tweet

STUDIOBINDER

Film production software
made modern.

• Organize talent and crew details

• Create shooting schedules & breakdowns

• Create, send & track personalized call sheets

Mark Salcido
Follow me

Mark Salcido

Screenwriter and Managing Editor at ScreenGeek
Lifelong film fanatic, Mark Salcido was discovered frozen in carbonite by C.H.U.Ds. He was released to the surface level to spread his rants and opinions on anything of film and digital. Batman calls him for advice.
Mark Salcido
Follow me

Latest posts by Mark Salcido (see all)

Related Posts