Today I really want to talk about some new compositional opportunities that have opened up with digital TV & internet delivery. Before I dive in to the topic, if you need a kick-starter or a refresher course, this article provides an excellent overview of composition rules.
In many ways, composition in cinema is a language of convenience. Not convenient for the D.O.P - but convenient for the audience. It could be (successfully) argued that cinema's visual flow is built entirely on viewer comfort and immersion. A general rule of thumb is that cinematography shouldn't draw attention to itself & it shouldn't disconnect the audience from the film. It's always there to enhance the action - to keep up the subterfuge that what you're watching is real.
Leading the eye is the central tenet of composition - whether through Depth of Field, Leading Lines, or Points of Contrast. Examples taken from The Third Man.
For that reason, I disagree that "every frame is a painting"* as much as "every frame is a well thought out compromise". Shots aren't conceived in isolation & the point of focus is held in the same area of the frame throughout a shot sequence. Not only is this visually attractive but it keeps the audience's eyes from having to constantly seek across the screen, which creates fatigue, immersion loss and irritability.
This reliance on fixed eye position is even more critical for modern cinema which preferences rapid-cutting over long-takes. An onslaught of cuts is incoherent unless the eye is able to rest.
More over, cinema had been being increasingly shot with broadcast & home video in mind, which meant that films needed to be viewable with the top and bottom 20% of the image cropped. The forever maligned Pan & Scan could compensate for the extreme Left-to-Right cropping of widescreen releases (kinda…), but the overscan loss was an unavoidable limitation of the medium itself.
The Sting was shot open matte in order to evoke the feeling of 1930s cinema, which had a 4:3 or "Academy standard" Aspect Ratio. Knowing that the film would be cropped by less-aware projectionists, it was shot to work in both the original Academy and standard 35mm ratios as well as respecting the cropping margins for broadcast. The final film is perhaps a perfect compromise; it manages to work in every one of it’s aspect ratios yet it isn’t visually stunning in any of them. Relying far more on its star power and dense plotting you don't notice the visual compromises unless you're looking out for them..
This is where the phrase “… as it was meant to be seen!” originated when plastered on billboards for film revivals. It’s not just about the picture being bigger and the smell of popcorn; it’s about how your eyes follow the action. When you’re sitting at home viewing the image on a 40” screen (and previously, on a badly cropped release), there’s no seek-time for your eyes so you end up pre-empting the action rather than following it.
And this brings me to the point. As long as we were tethered to huge cinema screens & low resolution TVs that required compromise on all fronts there was little room for exploration outside of the well established rules.
Youtube has been a fascinating breeding ground of ghetto-composition-techniques (both good and bad) for years now -- kind of an "outsider art" for the film world. But now, with exploration in TV being actively encouraged, it finally seems to be gaining traction at a wider level:
These still were all taken from Mr Robot, a new show from 2015. It isn't the best 'new' show from the last twelve months but the uniqueness of its aesthetic makes it one of the most interesting. While there are a few noticeably bad shots, they are few and far between & the dedication to the style makes it a very impressive visual achievement. I'm very interested to see where we go from here & looking forward to further exploring the boundaries inside my own space.
Co Founder Luminary Studios
* That is an absolutely killer youtube channel though. Highly recommended :)