Composition and Camera Movement
Composition exists in a context. That context is the frame, which
is itself an element of picture composition. In 1894 Thomas Edison
introduced the Kinetoscope motion picture format, with an aspect ratio
(ratio of picture width to height) of four units wide to three units
high, or 1.33 to 1. For the next fifty years most film used the
1.33 aspect ratio. Sixteen millimeter, eight and “super
eight” millimeter film formats and NTSC, PAL, and SECAM
television standards all share the 1.33 ratio.
4 x 3 or 1.33 Aspect Ratio
From an optical standpoint, the most efficient rectangular format would
be square, since it would use as much of the lens area as
possible. So why don’t we have square pictures?
Artists and mathematicians from the ancient Greeks and Egyptians have
focused on the “golden rectangle” as the perfect
shape. The aspect ratio of the golden rectangle is 1.618.
One might presume (although I’ve found no evidence so far) that
the 1.33 aspect ratio is a compromise between the most efficient ratio
and the most esthetically pleasing.
Over the years a number of standard sizes with different aspect ratios
became popular. The 8x10 photograph (1.25), the 4x6
photograph (1.5), and the 35mm slide (1.5) are a few examples.
Film evolved, too. Cinerama (2.5 - 3.0), Cinemascope (2.55), and
Panavision (1.78 – 2.4) are a few standards among many.
High definition television has an aspect ratio of 16 by 9, or
1.78. The shape of the frame is the first consideration in
16 x 9 or 1.78 Aspect Ratio
Ideally, every shot in a television program should be composed as
carefully as a still photograph. While this is not often possible, some
general rules of composition should be kept in mind.
The face of the typical television screen has been surrounded by
a frame called a shadow mask, which hides about five per cent of the
picture.. The composition of the same image will be different
with and without the shadow mask. The presence of the shadow mask
has always caused a problem for films transferred to video because they
were generally composed to be shown “edge to edge.”
Now the same problem occurs when images are composed using a digital
(LCD) monitor without taking the shadow mask into consideration.
The red border around the frame represents the shadow mask. It is
unlikely the viewer will see anything in this area. The gold and
green areas combined are referred to as the safe action area.
Anything that takes place here is likely to be visible to the
viewer. The green area is known as the safe title area. It
is virtually certain that any text in the green area will be visible to
Notice the difference in "head room" in the pictures below this
text. If you are using a camera with a monitor that shows the
entire picture, be sure to allow for the shadow mask when you are
composing your shots. Some viewfinders have "safe area" masks or
lines to help you.
Unless your subject is perfectly symmetrical, the screen should
never be divided exactly in half by strong horizontal or vertical
lines. Instead, it should be divided approximately into thirds. For
example, the horizon (if you're shooting a corn field) should be either
a third of the way from the bottom of the screen or a third of the way
from the top. With the exception of titles, composition should not be
perfectly symmetrical, but should rather balance positive and negative
(filled and empty) space.
Intelligent use of composition can be used to draw the viewer's eye to important parts of the picture.
When framing people, there are several additional concerns. By placing
someone too high or too low in the frame, the individual can be made to
seem taller or shorter than he actually is. The tendency is to place
people too low.
When the screen is filled with a face, the critical part of the
face includes the eyes, mouth, and chin. The picture should be framed
to include those, allowing hair or ears to fall outside the frame.
When shooting a profile (side view) of a person, it's important to
allow empty space in the direction the subject is looking. This extra
space is called "nose room."
|Insufficient Nose Room
|| Good Nose Room
Nose room applies not only to people, but to anyone or anything
pointing or moving. There should be relatively more empty space
in the direction of the pointing or movement.
The kind of framing a writer or director wants is usually described in terms of wide, medium, or close-up.
A wide shot includes the entire subject and important objects
in the immediate surroundings. It's used to show where he is in his
environment. If it's used at the beginning of a scene it's often called
an "establishing" shot.
||A medium shot shows most of the subject, including all parts of the
subject that are important to understanding what the subject is doing.
A medium shot of a person sitting still might show his body from the
waist up, letting hands and the lower half of his body fall outside the
|A medium shot of a person dancing or performing Tai Chi, on the other
hand, would have to include his arms and hands, since these are
generally important to understanding what he's doing.
A close-up is used to isolate the most important part of the subject.
For a speaker, this is generally the head. For an entire football team,
a close-up might be a shot of the quarterback only.
An extreme close-up focuses on one important detail of the
subject, perhaps the mouth alone, or just the eyes, if the subject is a
person. The object is to focus on important detail either to increase
the drama or impact on a situation or to allow the viewer to see
necessary picture information more clearly.
In shooting a group of people, we have a few special terms. A "one
shot" is a medium shot of a single person. A "two shot," would still be
a medium shot, but the "subject" is made up of two people and the shot
is framed tightly around those two. We also use terms such as "head
shot," "head and shoulders shot," and "waist-up shot."
In the age of hand-held camcorders it must seem odd that there's an
elaborate vocabulary describing how a camera can be moved. If you can
do it, the industry has a technical term for it.
The two camera movements you use routinely are the "pan" and "tilt." A
pan is a turning of the camera to the left or right. A tilt involves
tilting the camera up or down.
The stand for a heavy studio television or film camera is called a
"pedestal." That's why the term for raising the camera is "pedestal
up," and the term for lowering the camera is "pedestal down." These
terms have nothing to do with adjustments to the "pedestal," or setup
of the black level of the picture, which is an electronic adjustment,
not a camera movement.
In moving a camera from side to side you "truck right" or "truck left."
To move the camera closer to the subject, you "dolly in." To move it
farther away you "dolly out." Of course, whenever the camera-to-subject
distance changes, the focus must be adjusted.
Purists will point out that dolly shots (in or out) are fundamentally
different in effect from zooming in or out. They're right. But
professionals will go to extreme lengths to get a smooth dolly shot, to
the point of laying special tracks to roll the dolly on. People with
more modest means have mounted cameras on bicycles, shopping carts and,
of course, cars to get their dolly shots.
Finally, in situations where important parts of a scene are not the
same distance from the camera, it's possible to change the emphasis of
a shot from one part of the scene to another by changing focus alone..
The instruction to do this is "rack" focus "in" or "out" for a
particular object in a scene. "Rack focus into the cup on the table,"
would be an example. Such instructions are rarely used and are
generally given for artistic effect.
See the Compostition and Camera Movement forum at http://tv-handbook.com/discussion/.