What We Can Learn from Movie Composition
A while back, I spotted an article about the “70 Most Beautiful Cinematic Shots in Movie History” and I wanted to see what techniques directors use in movies that we can use in our photographs. People often say that they would like their pictures to tell a story. So what better place than the movies to do a little research! After scanning the highlights, I selected a handful of the movie stills to demonstrate what techniques they use in the movies.
What did I find?
For those who insist that there are no rules in photography, remember that there might not be hard-wired rules like in a board game, but there are definitely tools.
There were four major techniques that I found most popular in movie making. In some images they are overlapping, like Figure to Ground AND Atmospheric Perspective, but for simplicity I grouped them by the strongest element in each frame.
- Figure to Ground
- Atmospheric Perspective
- Linear Perspective
- Central Composition
While most photography teaching will command you to NOT put the subject in the center of the frame, movie making will tell you that central composition works with amazing frequency, no matter how many times we see it. I tend to agree with the movie makers. The other more subtle techniques – Atmospheric Perspective, Linear Perspective and Figure to Ground – are the basis of my online courses and The Photographer’s Tool Box video.
For those who insist that there are no rules in photography, remember that there might not be hard-wired rules like in a board game, but there are definitely tools. The whole purpose of training is so that our actions become intuitive reactions to a given situation. The keyword in that sentence is ‘become.’ Intuition without training is like picking up a guitar for the first time and making sounds … trust me, it will not sound like Jimi Hendrix no matter how much ‘intuition’ goes into the performance. Cameras are no different.
Here is a selection of stills from movies in the last 40 years. As we can see, by using these techniques the movie makers are not limited in their creativity. The options and expressions are endless. What good technique does is allow the viewer to have an effortless viewing experience, which is one of the many reasons movies are popular.
The options and expressions are endless.
Figure to Ground
City of God (2002) Figure to Ground
Days of Heaven (1978) Figure to Ground
Deer Hunter (1978) Figure to Ground
Exorcist (1973) Figure to Ground
Truman Show (1998) Figure to Ground
Apocalypse Now (1979) Atmospheric Perspective
Children of Men (2006) Atmospheric Perspective
Gladiator (2000) Atmospheric Perspective
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) Atmospheric Perspective
Jarhead (2005) Atmospheric Perspective
Skyfall (2012) Atmospheric Perspective
2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) Linear Perspective
Alien (1979) Linear Perspective
Inception (2010) Linear Perspective
Saving Private Ryan (1998) Linear Perspective
Se7en (1995) Linear Perspective
Tron (2010) Linear Perspective
American Psycho (2000) Central Composition
Gravity (2013) Central Composition
L.A. Confidential (1997) Central Composition
Memories of Murder (2003) Central Composition
Stand by Me (1986) Central Composition
The Tree of Life (2011) Central Composition
When a photographer can begin to think more like a director and less like a surveillance camera operator, their pictures will become infinitely more powerful, interesting, and stand a much better chance of telling a story in a single frame.