This lesson is adapted from a video essay I made addressing the same topic. It has all the same examples and is nearly identical, apart from a few tweaks. If you’d prefer to watch the video, it can be found here.
Because of its unique blend of images and audio, film is a complex storytelling medium. With colors, lighting, score, editing, shot framing, acting, and dialogue to pay attention to, it can be difficult to figure out what exactly a film means, what it is saying, and why it makes us feel a certain way. Just like in any form of communication, a director has a variety of tools at his or her disposal when communicating ideas through film. Each of these tools can be used to carefully manipulate a film to achieve the director’s goals, to communicate through images and audio exactly what they want to say. Gaining an understanding of these tools, both how they work individually and how they work in tandem with other tools, can make it easier to extract meaning from a movie. Think of these tools like rhetorical techniques in literature: for instance, a poet may string together a series of s’s in sequence to emphasize sinister undercurrents, or Shakespeare might use a blazon to mock literary tropes. In a similar way, Alfred Hitchcock may use a classic technique, the “iris”, to make viewers feel like they’re spying on a character. Or Steven Spielberg might choose a specific camera angle for a shot that communicates a character’s terror when faced with a dinosaur. These sort of techniques allow a director to make a statement, to create a specific impact. By breaking down these techniques, we can begin to understand what that specific impact is. Today we’ll be considering shot composition, one of the most essential tools in a director’s repertoire.
I’ve said this already, but I really need to emphasize that, when analyzing film, we don’t just look at all of the techniques a director uses in isolation. We take all of the pieces, all of the tools, and examine how they work together to achieve a particular effect. However, in order to do this, we need to understand those individual pieces so that we’re not overwhelmed with visual and auditory information. Even though we will be focusing on shot composition for this video, keep in mind than it can influence, and be influenced by, the other techniques a director may choose to implement. With that in mind, let’s narrow our focus to shot composition.
Composition is one of the building blocks of film. It refers to the arrangement of characters and objects within the frame, the relative positions, sizes, and prominence of entities within the shot. A director can manipulate the composition of a shot in order to create an impact, to influence the viewer’s perception of what is on screen. It can inform us of relationships between characters, highlight specific character traits, and generate an emotional response from viewers. Not only is shot composition an effect tool for conveying a message to the viewer, it’s also essential for just making a film look good. There’s a reason composition is a basic technique taught in art classes. In much the same way that a painter composes his piece to be visually appealing and interesting, a director composes his shots to maintain his audience’s attention. While a director may opt for busy composition in some instances to get a point across, a muddled mess of objects and characters is confusing and visually unappealing.
A film is a string of pictures, and by understanding what is happening within those individual pictures we can begin to understand film as a whole. Take this shot from Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Your interpretation may be different from mine, and that’s absolutely okay: we’re just trying to get used to examining a shot and deriving meaning from it. Notice the guns forming a barrier between the standing soldier and the three sitting on the steps. It creates a visual divide, one that may reflect events happening within the narrative. Why would Spielberg choose to use guns specifically? Yes, they’re soldiers so it makes sense within the film’s context, but perhaps Spielberg had more in mind when composing this shot, perhaps he wanted to make a point about how war tears individuals apart, or something like that. Why is one soldier standing and the other three sitting down? Does it further enhance the divide between them, does it serve some larger role within the context of the film? These sort of questions help us to examine composition, to derive meaning from it, and interpret the film.
The Spielberg example is pretty straightforward to analyze. I chose that particular shot because the compositional decisions are pretty easy to pick out. I strained a bit at times, but it’s still pretty clear what Spielberg is getting at. There are instances, however, in which compositional decisions are more subtle. Sometimes, it can be more difficult to pick out what a director is getting at with his shots. It’s also important to keep in mind that some compositional elements may not even be deliberate decisions. Authorial intent is a difficult question, and there’s a never-ending debate on whether it even matters. For our purposes, we won’t be concerning ourselves too much with this question. Right now we’ll examine the composition of shots and not worry too much about whether the director intended a certain impact; instead, we’ll just attempt to understand that impact in the first place.
Let’s look at the composition of one more shot. This one is from Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Notice the arrangement of the four standing figures. They seem to be of equal prominence in the shot, taking up about the same amount of space. Even without having seen the film, it’s easy to tell that these four guys are probably friends or allies, that there’s a degree of cohesion between them. With shot composition, Kubrick is able to inform us of the relationship between these four characters, to communicate an idea to us only with visual information. There’s also a figure lying on the ground in front of the four men. Placing him in this position immediately subordinates him to the other men, makes him their inferior. Again, composition immediately gives us an impression of a relationship within the film. Lastly, consider the long shadows cast by the four men. An argument could be made that this falls more under the category of lighting, but let’s not get too caught up in that right now. It’s still a shape within the frame, so we’ll consider it a compositional element as well. They give the viewer an ominous feeling, a sense of foreboding. They make the figures seem larger than life and powerful, emphasizing their dominance in the shot. Every piece of this shot’s composition creates a specific impact, impacts that contribute to the larger significance of the film itself.
Of course, if you’re casually watching a movie you won’t be able to pause it at every cut and analyze every last compositional element— but try to pick up on things that stand out to you. How does the director use composition to impact the viewer? What is that impact? How does it tie into the larger significance of the film? How does it work in tandem with other techniques? Doing so will provide you with a better understanding of film, and watching movies will become a more rewarding experience.