Dreamworks Pictures’ 1998 classical animation debut, Prince of Egypt, was one of the first to feature near epic scale and grandeur in animated pictures.
We continue our discussion of Joseph Mascelli’s Five C’s of Cinematography, completing the series with our focus on composition. (To begin at the start of the series with Part 1, visit here).
A movie loaded with gorgeous cinematic images, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia is the high water mark of great film photography.
Composition in film is highly under appreciated. Due to its fixed proportions (which has changed from the traditional 4:3 framing prior to the 1980’s to the now extreme wide framing of 2.85:1), film composition, relative to the other arts always seemed limited. However, I believe it’s because of its limited horizontal frame, that we see some of the most creative and breathtaking compositions in film.
The advantage of motion and the compounding impact of successive images, film composition can inform, calm, excite and even frighten the viewer.
Mia Farrow in a harrowing moment in Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s baby, a film with a host of sensational camera compositions that help make this film highly suspenseful.
Understanding composition means understanding what Mascelli’s calls compositional language – lines, forms, masses and movements.
Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, North By Northwest. The marvelous use of line and depth create distant space and carries the eye deep into the picture.
He also goes on to discuss the importance of balance and gravity in composition.
Another image from North By Northwest depicting mass and gravity. The base of the massive heads and the placement of the main characters, give weight and meaning to the environment and the story.
A formally balanced picture suggests peace, quiet and equality, while an informal one features asymmetry, weighting and dominance in one area of the screen. Informal balance can create great interest and dynamism as seen in many outer-space science fiction epics.
This shot from the climatic battle in George Lucas’ Return of the Jedi, shows not only excellent use of off-kilter balance, but also line, form, mass and movement to create tension and dynamic action.
The use of gravity also influences balance. Animators would do well to heed these words:
“Human senses rebel at compositions that defy the laws of gravity.
In the remainder of the chapter, he goes on to discuss the integration of camera angles, image size, perspective and image placement all of which help the artist to get the most effective results.
Here, the master of the spaghetti western, Sergio Leone, employs physical elements (such as the collar, hat and hands) to triangulate your attention into the eyes and soul of Charles Bronson’s character in the 1968 film, Once Upon A Time In The West.
He concludes the chapter on composition and the book saying:
“… the viewer must be affected both pictorially and psychologically, to convey the script’s intent to arouse his emotions. Never allow more than one center of interest on the screen at one time unless a disturbed or scattered effect is desired.
Consider the viewer’s eye scan from shot to shot. Work for visual variety, by changing compositional elements often. Eliminate grills, gimmicks and complex arrangements. Make ‘keep it simple’ the working slogan for interesting compositions.”
A shot from Akira Kurasawa’s 1961 comedy-action samurai flick, Yojimbo. The sideways cross composition makes for a very interesting and gorgeously powerful image.
This concludes our series on the Five C’s of Cinematography. This is the landmark book on camera work and any artist, both novice and professional, would do well to read or re-read it.
Follow up on another great book on cinematography, John Alton’s Painting with Light.