I was thinking about my dad over the weekend and recalled several lessons he taught me in filmmaking. One was about dynamic composition with a moving camera. Composition is something taught heavily to still photographers, but is rarely taught to cinematographers.
Dynamic film composition is a tool used by the director of photography to support the director’s visual choices for telling his story. Simply put, it is the composing and recomposing of a shot while the camera or actors are moving. The camera must encompass the same visual rhythm the director implements with the actors, and the duration of each shot must take into consideration the affects of perception it has on the audience.
The cinematographer must start with the understanding that his composition will create an immediate, instinctual response in the eye of the audience. He must also understand that each viewer will have a different ability to understand the composition, thereby affecting the way each viewer emotes in accordance with the story.
Strong composition within a still picture can quickly help a cinematographer understand the audience’s eye movement, just like shooting from a locked down camera. However, movement in this decade is king, and every shot requires a variety of camera adjustments to capture a frame that stirs the emotions.
The following elements impact the effectiveness of dynamic composition:
• A subject moving in or out of frame.
• The anticipation of a subject moving in or out of frame.
• A shift in focus from a background to a foreground subject and visa versa.
• A change in texture from hard to soft focus.
• Strong movement of a subject within a static frame.
• The variation of close-up and long shots.
• The camera following a subject.
• The synchronization of the actors to the camera movement.
• The blocking of the actors to isolate a character within the right focal plane.
• The movement of the camera on a dolly, crane, or jib.
• The camera’s angle to sightlines.
I know I’m missing several examples, but I believe the importance of blocking the shots for significance is understood, especially when the camera is in motion. The more movements the camera or actors execute, the more adjustments are required on focus, framing, and set up.
The duration of a shot and the expectation of the audience also play a significant role in dynamic composition. The longer the duration, the easier it is for the audience to discern the elements of a shot and make certain mental or emotional judgments. The faster the shot, the more instinctual or intuitive the scene has to play out in order to keep the audience focused on the story.
The director works with the cinematographer much the same way a conductor works with a musician. He desires to capture the right mood, feel and emotion in a shot, just as a conductor generates the same from the score. Both seek to bring a unique experience to the audience and a variety of rhythm. The director takes the audience on an emotional journey that heightens at the climax and soon resolves into having had a great motion picture experience.
Visual rhythm seems to be an overlooked art today, while still being the most important aspect of a movie. The films most easily studied to understand dynamic composition includes:
• The Battleship Potemkin
• Ivan the Terrible
• The French Connection
While other films can be studied, the above films were built around the impact of its visual rhythm. Some directors take this visual technique beyond the camera and work closely with production designers and costume designers to help them heighten the impact of a story’s emotional pulse. The director owns the depth to which the team will work on the visual rhythm of the story, but the cinematographer is responsible for his team capturing it.