Fantastic Frames and How to Fill Them
There are many ways to earn a living. You could be an engineer building bridges that save commuters hundreds of hours on the road, a teacher that educates the future leaders of the world, or an insurance broker helping a family through a tragedy. These are all noble, challenging and rewarding professions: everything you could want from a job that you commute to five days a week for thirty years.
When I drive to work, however, it is with the thought of my frame that I travel with. The frame: a device that showcases the world’s most famous and acclaimed works of art. The Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, The Persistence of Memory. “Look at me,” is what you are essentially saying when framing an object. You mean for people to look at it, and analyse and critique what you have deemed so worthy of public view.
When you choose to make a video, your frame and the objects in it are constantly moving, creating juxtapositions between characters themselves and everything else surrounding them. This complex, three-dimensional world is constantly evolving which makes filmmaking one of the most difficult disciplines through which human emotion can be steered.
This perspective is necessary, not to create anxiety, but to make aspiring filmmakers think. Think before you shoot. Deliberate your frame and ask yourself the difficult questions. Then ask yourself the most important question: is this frame moving the narrative forward?
Humans are born problem solvers who look at random objects and try to find the relationship between them. It is why artists and filmmakers go beyond surface encounters that take place on canvas or inside film and use metaphors, symbols, movement, contrast, direction, size, positioning, depth, perspective and many other devices to influence audience opinion.
Storytelling through cinematography is essentially the art of visually depicting change.
“If your characters go through a major change during the script, let your cinematographic choices reflect it.”– Robert Hardy.
There are many film critics and film school lecturers who will tell you that there are rules to follow when setting up a frame. The more common include the rule of thirds, lead room and 180-degree rule.
The Rule of Thirds:
The rule of thirds is where you dissect your frame with two horizontal and vertical lines forming three sections, both ways. The intersections of the lines are points of interest, where important objects are placed in the screen. These points of interest are comfortable to the eye, thus the middle portions of the frame are sometimes kept empty or clear.
Lead room refers to a character’s eye line as it is directed towards the far end of the frame as opposed to the end that is closest to where they are placed. This technique makes characters more comfortable in their surroundings as opposed to looking into negative space, which makes them seem more closed off or uncomfortable.
The 180-degree rule says that the camera cannot cross the 180-degree line when two characters are in conversation. This keeps the characters facing in opposing directions when speaking to each other thus helping the audience with orientation.
These and many other visual systems have been taught at film schools for decades now. If your lecturers were any good, however, they would also have had added that these rules are in fact just guidelines. They can be, have been, and are constantly broken broken in all modes of film, but only ever for practical reasons.
Most audiences are used to these techniques, so when one of these guidelines aren’t adhered to the audience is going to notice, even it it’s only on a subconscious level.
In the same way, modern audiences are used to a certain standard when it comes to filling a frame. This again may not be a conscious understanding, so when they watch a well-executed scene they may not pick up on any of the techniques that better portray the story or create a rich frame.
However, when these techniques are not used the audience will feel uneasy, breaking the enigma that the director is trying to create. Again, there are many methods used by professional filmmakers surrounding the mise en scéne of their frame.
Depth-of-field is a relatively simple method to understand and is one of the most effective techniques in setting up a dynamic frame by dividing it into three planes, foreground, middle ground and background. For a frame to be rich, dynamic, and interesting, all three planes must be used as often as possible. This technique is also used to give importance to certain objects in the frame that reveals information to the audience. The size of the object in a frame is often directly related to how important that object is.
A good example of how depth-of-field can make a frame rich and interesting is from the film, Fury. In one scene, a young girl is hung in the foreground with a sign around her neck that speaks to the terrible brutally of war. The middle ground is filled with beautiful fields and war tanks and speaks to the fact that the Allies, although having occupied Germany, still have many dangers ahead. Finally, in the background a town burns to illustrate the impact the war is having on the country. This frame is beautifully executed both in terms of filling a frame and using it to its full potential in order to move the narrative forward.
There are endless possibilities when setting up your frame for a scene. This can make the process of making a film feel overwhelming and intimidating, but don’t let that scare you away from making a movie of your own. Not all of these techniques have to be used all of the time, and honestly, if you have a good enough reason, these techniques don’t have to be used at all.
My advice when you drive to work, thinking about that frame, would be to keep it simple, be extremely prepared, and have a reason for doing something. Also, remember that your frame is just one of possibly hundreds of a bigger picture. Always have the bigger picture at the front of your mind.
Greg Swanson is a Director at The Fort.
1 Elements of Cinema, Composition and Framing by Gabe Moura
2 No Film School, How to Establish Dominance Using Eyelines
3 No Film School, Composition and Framing Can Help You Tell Great Stories