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What's in the Frame?

by Craig Tollis

Somebody once pointed out to me that filmmaking is about motion pictures - and the composition and aesthetics of those pictures play a fundamental role in how your audience experiences your work. Cinematography and directing are not just about having people deliver lines in front of a lens. You are also trying to tell your story visually - both in action and in terms of how it looks and feels.

So, what are some things should you be looking for on that monitor?

Firstly, make sure you're seeing everything that's going on in the shot. Having somebody watch a monitor can be very valuable - when you look through a viewfinder or just watch on the set your tendency is to pay attention to one central thing, not the entire picture. Make sure you aren't seeing lights, cables, equipment or trash in the frame. Also watch out for distractions - particularly anything very bright, dark or colorful that might be out of place in the scene, or anything moving that might draw unwanted attention. There's nothing worse than simple visual distractions ruining a great performance.

Be aware of how your shots are composed. Photographic concepts like the "Rule of Thirds" generally apply, although there are different considerations for still and moving cameras. It's important not only to give your film more interest and energy but that the audience's attention be drawn where you want it and it's apparent to them what is important in the scene. Be aware of foreground and background elements in your composition and make sure they work with your purpose for the scene, as well articulating depth in your picture.

An extended part of composition is creating visual relationships. This might be between the camera and actors, or between the actors themselves. For example, should a location look open and welcoming, or closed and claustrophobic? Should a character look powerful and in control, or small and isolated? Should a particular character dominate the screen? Should somebody be partially hidden or completely exposed? The audience will pick up on the relationships between characters and elements in your story through the way they appear on the screen.

Most important is developing the ability to see naively - to look at a scene every time as though it is the first time you have seen it; to see it as the audience will when they see it for the first time. Without this you are in danger of seeing your own assumptions in the scene, seeing what you wish to be there, rather than what actually is there. This is a constant challenge, even for experienced film makers. If your assumptions do not match what is apparent to your audience, you will lose them. This is why home movies are fascinating to the people who were there at the time, who understand what the images are supposed to represent, but deadly dull to everyone else who didn't share that previous experience.

Of course, not every image has to be "beautiful" in the conventional scene. But every picture does convey an impression, and hopefully the one your audience gets matches with the mood, the feel and the story that you intended to communicate to them.