Composition of a Good Film: Following the Rules

I know, I know.  When you think of the word “composition” your mind probably goes to an essay or a piece of music.  Because of my film theory background, however, my mind goes to the rules of composition applied when making or analyzing a film for its goodness or badness.

Last weekend, Kathryn and I were watching a movie of her choosing. The first ten to fifteen minutes of the movie consisted of multiple bombings and fist fights between lots of different characters who all had some mysterious (but deep) connection. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out what the story was. Kathryn insisted that I should just ride it out, saying that it would all come together eventually, and that it really was a great movie. (Uh-huh). I responded that if a movie’s story hadn’t emerged within the first ten to fifteen minutes, it probably never would, and therefore it couldn’t be a great movie. (I should mention that the last time I waited for a movie’s story to begin was when I watched 2001: A Space Odyssey. And I know that as a film major I am not supposed to knock this fine specimen of film-making history, but that was several hours of my life I will never get back … simply waiting for the story to start). Kathryn berated my taste in movies, saying I couldn’t possibly know a good movie in the first ten to fifteen minutes. After some debate on the topic, I watched The Sound of Music and she went to bed.

How is it that my sister and I, who were virtually raised the same way (she is the baby, so some concessions must be made) and come from the same background, have such different opinions on what a good movie is? At the risk of sounding a bit elitist here (but believe me, that’s not my intent), the biggest difference in how we determine what makes a good movie stems from the fact that I studied film theory for two years. I know the rules that a good film-maker follows. (One of the rules is that you have to set up the story and characters within the first ten to fifteen minutes of the movie).  I also know that you can’t just break the rules to break the rules – you must have a reason for breaking the rules, and that reason must be related to the story or point you are trying to get across.

This has nothing to do with my degree, this has to do with me studying and understanding an art form I am passionate about. In order to create excellent art the artist either must follow or purposefully manipulate the rules of his or her chosen art form. In order to follow or purposefully manipulate the rules, the artist must first know those rules inside and out.

One movie that exemplifies manipulation of the rules for visual intent is The King’s Speech, based on the true story of King George VI and how he perseveres through a speech impediment. When you listen to the actual tapes of the fictionalized speech at the end of the movie, it is incredibly hard to listen to because of the stammering and stumbling. The task the film-maker must have had was, “How do we translate this discomfort visually?” 

As I said earlier, in film-making we have rules and a lot of these rules dictate how a shot should be framed. When framing a person, the shot must observe proper headroom and leadroom. And then there is the rule of thirds: objects should be framed on one of the two horizontal lines or at one of the four points of intersection. You may be reading this and have NO idea what I’m talking about, but I promise you if I showed you a movie where these rules are not followed, you would notice. We were created to observe art a certain way, and so when something isn’t right with a shot, our eyes tell our brains. (That of course, is the non-scientific explanation). It causes us discomfort.

So we have a movie where we are visually trying to portray the awkwardness the character is going through. How do we do that? Awkward shot composition. In many situations the film-maker breaks leadroom  and headroom rules to give the viewer a sense of awkwardness.

Speech therapist should be to the left and back some, if our film-makers weren’t trying to get a visual message across.

So I suppose the movie Kathryn and I started watching this past weekend could have had some reason for taking longer in setting up its plot and characters. I just wasn’t going to stick with it to find out.

To be continued…

***

Lydia holds a Bachelor of Arts in Radio, Television, and Film. She is passionate about reaching artists with the good news of Jesus Christ. (Also, she has been wanting to analyze The King’s Speech for a very long time because it was the first movie she watched where manipulating the rules really “clicked”).

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