In this module we'll cover composition guidelines 5-10, starting with
Maintaining Tonal Balance
5. The tone (brightness and darkness) of objects in a scene suggests weight.
For example, against a medium background dark objects seem heavier than light objects. Note the illustration here.
Once you realize that brightness influences mass, you can begin to "feel" the visual weight of objects within a scene and strive for balance.
Note, for example, exquisite tonal balance in the photo at the beginning of this module.
6. Somewhat related to this is the sixth guideline: balance mass.
Just as a room would seem out of balance if all of the furniture were piled up on one side, a scene must be balanced to be aesthetically pleasing.
Regardless of their actual physical weight, large objects in a scene seem heavier than small ones. By objectively viewing the elements in a scene, you can learn to see their "perceptual weight."
To do this it helps to imagine a fulcrum or balance point at the bottom center of each of your shots.
Several things can be done to try to balance a shot: the camera can be panned to the left or right, a new camera angle can be selected, or the lens can be zoomed in or out to include and exclude objects. Seldom will objects actually have to be moved around.
Create a Pattern of Meaning
7. The seventh guideline for effective composition is: use a combination of scenic elements to create meaning.
Most people are familiar with the inkblot tests used by psychiatrists. By presenting someone with a "meaningless" collection of shapes and forms an individual draws from his or her background and thoughts and projects meaning into the abstract images.
In the same way, if a variety of objects appear in a still photo or video scene, we possibly even unconsciously try to make sense out of why they are there and what they represent. We assume that things don't just come together by accident.
Good directors take advantage of this tendency and pay careful attention to the specific elements included in a scene.
The most obvious example of this is the atmosphere introduction, which we discussed earlier, where a director opens on a scene full of clues about the central characterslong before we see them.
What would be suggested by opening a dramatic production with the shot on the right?
Elements in a shot may be bold and obvious, or they may be subtly designed to suggest almost subconscious meaning.
Film critics have spent many hours discussing the symbolism and subconscious levels of meaning in films by directors such as Frederico Fellini.
American films such as The Graduate and The Da Vinci Code, contain meaningful background elements that most people will not "catch" until they are pointed out.
While the director of a dramatic piece should be a master at creating illusions and emotional responses, the job in ENG (electronic news gathering) and documentary work is to clearly show things the way they are and let events and facts speak for themselves. This will be covered in Module 62.
However, this approach does not rule out striving for new and creative ways to present subject matter. Often, it's only by presenting the familiar in an entirely new way that an audience is awakened (or possibly reawakened) to its significance.
The Concrete and the Abstract
Whereas in news the object is to present images as completely and clearly as possible, a shot in a dramatic production might be intended to lead viewers toward intended meaning without being totally concrete. Savvy viewers want a bit of room to interpret on their own.
In deciding just how far to go along the abstract-to-concrete continuum videographers must know their target audience.
This may involve steering a middle path between being totally concrete and on the nose, and being so abstract that the target audience misses the intended message.
Including Multiple Levels of Meaning
It is possible to have it both ways? Yes, sometimes.
Many movies and television programs have multiple levels of meaning.
Animated films such as Cars, Over the Hedge, Finding Nemo, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Shrek are examples.
While the animated characters and the simple story line are entertaining children, the grown-ups pick up on the adult humor.
This, of course, makes it much easier for adults to sit through these "kids" films, and makes it more likely that they will take their children to see another such film.
But this isn't just a "kids and adults" issue.
Many successful prime-time TV series have content which is layered to meet various levels of audience sophistication.
There is simplistic humor and situations while simultaneously containing more meaningful or "meaty" content. Although not easy to achieve, this approach has been shown to greatly expand audience appeal.
8. The eighth guideline for visual composition is: make use of lines.
The boundaries of objects in a shot normally consist of lines: straight, curved, vertical, horizontal, and diagonal.
Our eyes tend to travel along these lines as they move from one part of the frame to another.
Knowing this, it becomes the job of the videographer to use these lines to lead the attention of viewers to the parts of the frame they wish to emphasize.
When used in this way, lines are referred to as leading lines, because they are selected or arranged to lead the viewer's eyes into the frame, and generally to the scene's center of interest.
In addition to moving our eyes around the frame, lines can suggest meaning in themselves.
Straight, vertical lines suggest dignity, strength, power, formality, height, and restriction.
Horizontal lines suggest stability and openness.
Diagonal lines can impart a dynamic and exciting look. Curved lines suggest grace, beauty, elegance, movement, and sensuality.
The S-curve is particularly effective in gracefully leading the eye to a center of interest. (Note the photos above and the one on the right.)
In contrast to curved lines, sharp jagged lines connote violence or destruction, and broken lines suggest discontinuity.
Frame Central Subject Matter
9. The ninth guideline for effective composition is: frame the central subject matter.
By putting objects at one or more edges of the picture, a shot can be framed.
Framing a scene holds attention within the shot and keeps viewer attention from wandering or being distracted from the center of interest.
To cite a common example, a leaning tree branch at the top of a scenic shot breaks up a bright sky and acts as a visual barrier or "stop point" for the top of the frame.
Note in the above photo above how framing the shot with foreground objects adds depth and dimension.
Make Use of Visual Perspective
10. The tenth guideline is: use the effect of visual perspective to enhance or support the scene's basic idea.
As noted previously, camera positions and lens focal length can alter both the apparent perspective in a shot and the apparent distance between objects.
A minimal camera-to-subject distance coupled with a short focal length lens (or a zoom lens at its widest position) exaggerates perspective.
In the case of this photo note that the parallel lines are wide apart in the foreground and converge on the center of interest. Selective focus is also used to good advantage.
By creatively controlling such things as lens focal lengths and camera distance, quite different impressions about a subject can be conveyed. You may recall that there were a number of examples in Module 11.
Additional examples of composition can be found here.
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