Last week during NAB in Las Vegas I had the chance to meet lots of filmmakers and readers of this blog, many of whom were looking for advice on cinematography, directing, and more. One of the questions I was asked that stuck with me was: “If you could give one piece of advice with regards to framing an image, what would it be?”
I thought that was a great question as there’s not always a huge focus on framing by budding cinematographers, especially these days with such a huge emphasis being put on gear, dynamic range, resolution, and other technical facets of the craft. Framing is one of the elements of cinematic language that is often overlooked or under-explored, which is really a shame considering it’s one of the most powerful tools we all have at our disposal when it comes to communicating visually with our audience.
So the advice I gave on the art of framing was:
Focus on what is not in your frame more than what is in your frame.
While at first this might sound counter-intuitive, the same notion could really be said about most aspects of the craft. Cinema is all about being selective. It’s about showing your audience an image, a world, a character, or a scene in a purposeful way that is meant to evoke a specific emotion. To do this well, you need to employ the right creative techniques to show the audience what you want them to see, but also to hide the things from them that shouldn’t be part of their experience.
From a practical standpoint, imagine you are shooting a scene of a character who is supposed to feel isolated, but is standing in a crowded place. If you were to show the entire scene in a wide shot – the environment, cars passing, people walking by, etc. it might be hard to fully create a sense of isolation for the main character. On the other hand though, if you were to use an extreme closeup on your character, the background disappears (metaphorically), and the visual story suddenly becomes all about them. The audience will still pick up on where the character is geographically (even without a wide shot), but more importantly they will also understand where they are emotionally.
An alternative solution to the example above might utilize a wide angle shot as opposed to a closeup, but would also use negative space – perhaps in the form of a huge amount of headroom – to find another way to isolate the character.
Both of the above scenarios are very simple examples, but the same basic principles will apply to any scene you shoot, no matter how complex it may be. There are of course exceptions to this rule, and certain genres, notably action, can sometimes benefit from showing more in the frame to create a sense of frenetic energy… But more often than not – less is more.
The fact that so many filmmakers are crazy about shallow depth of field speaks to the same overarching point. Shallow DOF can be used as a quick and dirty way of drawing attention to your subject and limiting the visual scope of your shot, even if the lighting, framing, and overall composition isn’t spot on. As a result, many filmmakers end up using shallow depth of field as a crutch.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with shallow DOF as a creative tool, but it should never be used as a way to get around implementing other creative techniques that might tell the story more effectively.
The good news is that improving your framing skills can be pretty easy – all it takes is a bit of attention to detail. By simply prioritizing framing and truly paying attention to what’s in your frame, and what’s not, your results will inevitably improve. The key really is just to stop and think about it each and every time to you’re ready to hit record, and ask yourself what your frame is going to tell your audience.
In future posts, I’ll be outlining some specific framing techniques that can help you break away from the standard “rule of thirds” that so many of us use without a second thought. But for now, keep shooting as much as you can, prioritize your frame, and then go shoot some more!