Composition Is Simple —Pephaps— but Very Important
By JAMES A. SHERLOCK
American Cimematographer January, 1940 p.27
ACTION is a dynamic force in a moving picture, but is not sufficient to hold attention without that elusive quality known as “Picture Composition,” difficult enough to obtain in the reflex viewfinder of a still camera but ten times more difficult to acquire in the small viewfinder of any cine camera.
If the amateur cinesmith wishes to add Picture Composition to his films he can easily develop a picture conscious eye that will naturally select a good camera angle for every shot. A study of good work done by artists and still photographers will assist, but will also prove to the cinematographer that he must be careful in selecting camera angles as the size and shape of the “field” in a moving picture remains permanent after the film has been exposed.
A good scene will have an abstract quality that suggests much more than it actually shows. A visit to the local art galleiy by a movie maker in a receptive mood will prove this point more than any words, and a study of works of art will show that most paintings are BUILT on some geometrical pattern that has the power to attract the eye and HOLD attention.
Why “Old Masters”
The “S” curve suggests depth and beauty, the Diagonal is used for speed or movement, the Triangle or Pyramid suggests strength and stability. Radiation suggests growth and the Rectangle is used if dignity is emphasized. Great artists have used these forms on which to BUILD pictures that have stood the test of time, and a study of their etchings or paintings explain why they are known as Old Masters. Their work holds the most casual eye in channels that all lead into the picture and attract attention long enough till the viewer appreciates the abstract meaning of the Master.
All mentioned geometrical forms are now used by the world’s best professional cinematographers when photographing either an interior or exterior. They use a particular design to suggest a mood in keeping with the scene. Sometimes a geometrical design is used to group or pose characters, while at other times the design is in the set or scene.
This might seem a little involved to the amateur who has not yet troubled about this absorbing phase of moviemaking, but once the first few rules are learned, the cinesmith will find an added pleasure to his fascinating hobby and his work will be of a higher standard, particularly if he is observant and has imagination.
There are many books written on still picture composition that will interest the cine worker. They explain that every scene as a whole must be studied and correctly balanced with flowing lines that lead the eye into the picture.
Most rules governing still picture composition are applicable to moving pictures, but are not strictly followed by the cinematographer with imagination, who cuts a scene when the action reaches its climax, then follows with a shot that has a pleasing- camera angle producing a smooth change of scene.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of a good motion picture is the careful camera angles chosen to secure successive scenes that are restful to the eye.
Unlike the painter who can eliminate or add what he wishes, the moviemaker must carefully choose the best position for his camera with the knowledge that every tone of light and shade will remain permanently as each scene is photographed.
What Makes Depth
The sense of depth is a vital part of all moving- pictures and good cameramen use light and shade to suggest the feeling of the third dimension on a screen that has but two dimensions.
To create this illusion a series of objects must be placed at different distances from the camera. It is the suggestion of space between objects that all cameramen should strive for when seeking pictorial effect. When black and white film is used, light must fall from an angle and break the picture into various shapes, thereby causing shadows to fall diagonally on the scene.
With color film this is not as important, as different colors separate the objects, but even when using- the latter film shadows should not be avoided.
On occasions the beginner will select a camera angle which shows perspective, texture and harmony, but unless he has had previous experience with a still camera his early pictures will be flat and
Using a camera outdoors, long shadows are to be gathered in early morning or late evening. Nature is then at her best for the pictorialist. Landscapes and buildings are draped with long trailing shadows. If the building is light in color a heavy filter is used to give contrast between the sky and architecture. If it is a dark building try for a white cloud behind it. The contrast of tones give a suggestion of depth.
Line of Beauty
By having a road or river recede from the camera in the form of the letter “S” depth is felt in a decided manner. This form of picture composition is to be found everywhere; in a shapely woman’s figure, cumulus clouds, winding paths, a winding brook, breakers on the seashore, in fact it appears more often in nature than any other form of picture composition and is most pleasing to the eye. It is known as the line of beauty.
The simplest method of obtaining depth in a scene is to frame it. “Framing” means placing an object along or near the edge of a picture but the object should be small and of a medium tone and should not contain distracting contrasts. If the “Frame” is in keeping with the mood of the scene so much the better.
For example, when photographing a landscape, have a small tree near one of the lower corners of the viewfinder; then in a seascape, include a small boat in a similar spot. In street scenes, a stationary vehicle or traffic signal can be used; when photographing architecture look round for an archway, but remember the framing must be used to attract attention to the center of interest.
Framing a Breeze
Another popular form of “Framing” is the use of a branch of a tree. This is particularly advantageous when photographing a scene that has little movement. A real tree is best, but a small branch can be held a few feet in front of the camera. If there is no wind, the branch could be gently swayed as the film is running through the camera.
Interior shots are just as easily handled. The next time you are watching an interior scene photographed by an A.S.C. cameraman notice how a small ornament, a small piece of furniture, a photograph, a bowl of flowers or a few books have been used to coincide with the mood of the scene and improve its composition, but these cinesmiths do not litter a scene with useless objects. They have the principal thing in the scene distinctive and isolated.
When human figures are added, they should harmonize with the mood of the scene and should not look directly into the lens, as they will appear to be looking out of the picture instead of into it.
The most common fault with beginners is that they do not hold the camera level when photographing a scene that contains a long horizon. Another fault is the desire to include too much in one scene. This is accentuated when the scene is panoramed. The eye and brain are confused as they wander from one point to another trying to seek understanding.
Main Point of Interest
The main point of interest should not be in the exact center of the picture and should have lines leading in its direction. Unnecessary detail should not crowd a scene. If the foreground is interesting keep the background subdued, and if the background is to be the main point of interest have the foreground subdued.
The main point of interest is emphasized by lighting it strongly. It should have the greatest contrasting tones and should be the point where all lines lead. There should not be two highlights or subjects of equal value in the one scene and the highlight should be placed near or in the main point, which should be kept away from the edge of the picture.
In photographing land or seascapes, never have the horizon divide the scene in halves. If the sky in interesting keep the horizon low in the viewfinder. If the foreground is to be featured have the horizon near the top of the picture.
Clouds are a great advantage, as they break the monotony of a light sky and add to the beauty of the scene. If a moving object is to be followed keep plenty of space in front of the action. Do not have the subject appear to be running out of the picture and try to panoram at the same speed as the moving object, keeping it in the same position of the viewfinder. Otherwise the speed of the action might appear to vary and possibly will not look convincing.
Do not photograph a procession or traffic at right angles to the camera. Have moving objects approach the camera from an angle. A low camera angle will make an object appear larger than a high camera angle.
A close analytical study of good professional films will show that the photographer has carefully studied camera angles to get pictorial effectiveness. He uses lighting to suggest moods in sympathy with the emotional appeal of the shot.
Newsreel cameramen use angles that have a candid appearance. They force an audience to feel participation in the subject matter. Professionals use more closeups than amateurs. They realize that each scene must have a dynamic appeal that compels the viewer to look, and, having seen, to understand but unfortunately it is not always convenient for the amateur to take a camera close to an object or a person to get the candid closeup that is wanted. It is at this point of moviemaking that the amateur realizes the necessity of telephoto lenses and the advantage of a turret head on a camera.