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Storytelling Through Composition Part 2

I wanted to thank you all for the huge response on part one of Storytelling Through Composition. Now we move into the tighter side of framing.


The Dirty OTS (over the shoulder):

This frame is another favorite. It can be used to show characters coming together because they are in love or for a particular cause or set of circumstances.

The person whose shoulder is being shot over is dirty, out of focus in the frame. To do these frames effectively and give your actors room to breathe, I suggest going on a slider, which in this instance we call “The Over Keeper” because you slide to keep your perfect dirty over. Sometimes your actors can lean, move, adjust themselves, and you don’t want to not see the actors’ eyes.


Being obsessed with the subtlety of shot design:

Other times, you can do overs that do not include the actor in the foreground. The director John Stockwell and I did this on Crazy/Beautiful in the beginning and used this style as a vehicle to bring the two together in a subtle way. We did not want Jay Hernandez and Kirsten Dunst to feel like they were together at first, so we shot clean overs. Then as they befriended one another, we started to link them together in wide dirty overs. Jay and Kirsten’s dirty overs became more and more claustrophobic as they fell deeper in love. We visually showed this by slowly narrowing that gap between them until they were literally on top of each other in the dark room scene.



I have been asked many times by colleagues, “Do you think anyone notices this?” I always turn to them and say, “Not in 30 seconds, but in two hours, I think you will feel it, and that is what being obsessed with the subtle style of filmmaking means to me.”

Narrowing the gap and dirtying OTS shots in Crazy/Beautiful

Narrowing the gap and dirtying OTS shots in Crazy/Beautiful


The Waister:

This shot is like a medium close up; you frame right at the waist. I use this shot to show body language and for a good comedy frame. You can see their stance, their aura.

The Waister


Collar Bone:

I like to use this with women. I think one of the most beautiful areas on a woman’s body is her collar bone because it can show a necklace, the seductive top of cleavage, costumes, fragility, innocence, or just plain beauty. You can show her full head in this shot or bring the top of the frame to just above their eyebrows.

Collar Bone


John Fording Into a Close Up:

Again, this shot comes from the master himself. Ford took his camera all over the place: to mountaintops, secret valleys and isolated caves where a dolly could not be placed at that time. Also remember that the cameras were very heavy and bulky.

John Ford Wide Shots

John Ford Wide Shots

John Ford

John Ford

What Ford liked to do was to play with the actors’ blocking and have them walk into a close up. I have used this on many of my films. Rob Cohen, who directed The Rat Pack and The Skulls, introduced me to this term, “John Fording,” and I have used it ever since. He is one wise and talented filmmaker.


The Choker:

I love this term for an extreme close up. This shot puts you inside the character’s emotions, their thoughts, dreams, struggles, the journey, and their world. It chokes the actor by framing it just below the chin and just above the eyebrow.

The Choker

There are many more that I could go into, but the shots above just happen to be my favorites. Remember, classic and elegant shots will never go out of style. It grounds the story, characters, and your visual language. Subtle composition that showcases the art of storytelling without attracting attention by using a sledgehammer is my favorite way to shoot.

What shots are you most proud of in your movies or commercials?

Read part one of this post.

Author: Shane

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  1. Loved your subtle evolving use of the dirty in Crazy/Beautiful. Thanks for taking the time to illustrate.


    Post a Reply
    • Keith Lanpher, you are so welcome and I am glad your enjoyed it. The movie is worth a view.

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  2. hey shane, this is top stuff. please keep them coming. i learn the theories in film school, but never explained so well was what you did. I’m glad that I can put this into real life practice.

    How much of composition do you plan in storyboard to the script? Or do you take it as it comes?

    Post a Reply
    • Sam, thank you so much for your kind words. This means so much to me that I am touching young filmmakers. I never had a resource like this. I plan 80% of it and the last is to chance, how the actors move, block, etc.

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  3. Awesome post Shane. I really hope to see a post on focal length in relationship to story telling. You do such a great job educating!

    Post a Reply
    • Kyle, thank you so much for your kind words, that is a great idea. We will try to make that happen.

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    • Bill Hamell, thank you so much for your kind words. LOve that shot and composition. Also love the mood of the lighting

      Post a Reply
  4. Shane,

    I’ve been religiously reading your blog for some time now, and each post is more enlightening and more engaging than the last.

    As a young still photographer who’s always had a love of cinema, with the HDDSLR revolution I feel that my childhood passion to make films has become a real possibility.

    Thank you for bridging the gap between the technical nuts and bolts and the larger overarching philosophies by providing a very clear answer to why certain decisions are made and how they affect your films.

    Post a Reply
    • Chris McDuffie, you are so welcome and thank you for those kind words and all of your support.

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  5. Great examples of how to use composition to tell any story better. Good advice for still photographers, too. I’d like to use this entry as a good example for my photo students. BTW, the guy in the watch cap in the John Ford BTS still looks a lot like Leonardo di Caprio. His dad, maybe?

    Post a Reply
    • Jeff Shaffer, thank you so much for your wonderful words. Glad I could help. I look to inspire and educate, talk about storytelling and not all the gear and tech.

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  6. Regarding: The Choker. Obviously from your examples it is visually okay to cut off the top of the head, but I also noticed in 2 shots the chin dips below frame. So it is okay to loose the chin line?

    Post a Reply
    • Maxi Claudio, yes two versions of Choker. One that cuts the forehead and holds the chin, another where you cut the forehead and the chin, just holding the area below the lips.

      Post a Reply
  7. Shane,

    Love you blog.

    In the previous article, in the comments, you elaborated on what lenses you would use for each shot. Can you do the same here?

    Post a Reply
    • Don, Sure The dirty OTS can vary from a 40mm which is what I used for the wide OTS with Kirsten and Jay, then the tight OTS was 75mm. The very tight was a 150mm. On the Waister that usually is a 50mm. The Choker can range again from a pushed in 27mm for wide angle choker, or more long lens style would be 75-150mm. I hope this helps

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  8. Your blog has taught me so much and served as a motivation to pursue my dreams of becoming a cinematographer even further!

    I can’t thank you enough!

    Post a Reply
    • David Pardoe, this is exactly why I put in all this time. Thank you for appreciating all of our teams efforts.

      Post a Reply
  9. Hey Shane,

    Long time follower, first time poster.

    This blog is probably the best thing I’ve come across, ever.

    I teach a small filmmaking course here in Dhaka, Bangladesh and my students love it as well. You’re lighting diagrams and composition techniques are just like having guest speakers come in and teach a class. The fact that a top Hollywood cinematographer endorses HDSLRs like the 5D (which is our “go to” camera) give these kids great joy and hope that their stuff can be great as well. I cannot thank you enough for this.

    Random Question: How would you rate the following cameras in your own order of preference: 1. Canon 1DC, 2. Canon C500, 3. RED Epic, 4. ARRI Alexa

    Thanks again for everything!

    P.S I’m really glad you included some Semi-Pro stuff in this post! The cinematography in that movie was amazing!!

    Post a Reply
    • MK, WOW, these are the comments that keep on inspiring me to do what I do. Thank you so much for these wonderful words. I am so glad that your students are learning from me and my teams experience. You are very welcome. Here is the list in my opinion: Arri Alexa, then C500, then 1DC, then the Red Epic

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  10. Shane, Lydia,

    ‘Thanks’ doesn’t begin to acknowledge the wealth of information and inspiration you are giving.
    Best Teacher Ever is a title that comes to mind.
    (No matter what C. Bales says…;)


    Post a Reply
    • Mark Rutherford, thank you so much for all your wonderful words, these comments inspire me to put all the time into this blog and the educating. No where else you can find this and that is our point at the HurlBlog. Education, insertion, innovation, then gear and tech talk.

      Post a Reply
  11. Awesome post!
    I´ve never thought about the “collar bone” composition, lots of things to consider when composing a shot.
    Thanks for all the posts in your blog Shane, i´ve learned a lot reading them.
    This is a link to my latest short film, https://vimeo.com/48418473 , just want to have professional feedback
    hope you enjoy it!


    Post a Reply
    • keikosonoy, thank you so much for your kind words and support. I love this collar bone shot, sexy area.

      Post a Reply
  12. I saw you speak at The Tiffen booth at NAB a couple of years ago and it turned me on to the Canon workflow. Wow, and the blog is helping not just me, but the college students I teach. We have switched our media center that does video for non-profit organizations, to Canons. Following your blog has been a great educational tool and greatly ramped up the quality of what we offer clients. it also keeps us from investing unwisely!!!

    Post a Reply
    • Bill, that is great to hear I am glad I am putting you and your students in the right pocket. Thanks for the support

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  13. Shane,

    One of the films that i religiously watch overand over again is “Them” . There is a scene where James Arness walks in to a low angle hero shot that then the camera tilts down as he walks to the other side of the room. I love how you hear him first then he walks into that shot then the camera picks up his movement to the other side of the room. Believe me when i say watch hundreds of films from the late 20s early 50s just to learn lighting, movement and continuity. I can not stress this enough. Thank you for sharing.

    Good look in Atlanta

    Be well


    p.s. Toronto is one of my favorite cities!

    Post a Reply
    • Laurence Zankowski, thank you so much for sharing. I will check that one out.

      Post a Reply
  14. Shane,

    Thank you for all your efforts in putting these things together for people.

    YOu asked about recent favourites. Recently shot a short WW2 piece in between work shoots. One of the things I remembered well from watching Westerns with my grandmother every Friday night was “The Cowboy”, so couldnt go past it when the opportunity arose. Sorry you’ll have to

    SO, I give you my “The Cowboy”
    My “The Choker”
    and finally my “Doinker”

    Thanks again Shane for all the sharing you do.

    Post a Reply
    • Noel Evans, those shots look great. Thank you so much for your kind words and support. You are so welcome. My pleasure!!

      Post a Reply
  15. Hey Shane,
    I love your site I especially love this post. I read a book on composition that was written way back in the 50s I believe, so a lot of these terms are familiar to me. Since I can’t go to film school your site is the closest I’ll get. Thanks.

    Post a Reply
    • Jace, there you are. Thank you so much for your kind words, they inspire all of us and Hurlbut Visuals. Keep up the support and we will continue to guide you.

      Post a Reply
      • @Jace “Since I can’t go to film school” one word… “Tarantino” ;)

        Post a Reply
        • Bill Hamell, exactly, he was a video store clerk, watched a ton of movies, learned from the masters.

          Post a Reply
  16. Shane, I think you’re spot on when you say that it’s not about the audience noticing these decisions, but it’s about them feeling something because of them. Everything we do as cinematographers is to evoke some kind of emotion, be it with the lighting, composition, or shooting style. I might watch a film and notice that the handheld camerawork was a little too jerky for my taste, whereas a friend who doesn’t know the difference will just say that something ‘felt’ off. In a way they’re getting the unbiased experience, reacting purely with their gut. The fact that one makes these decisions knowing that 99% of the audience will never be conscious of them is what being a filmmaker is all about; providing a platform for the story to shine and the emotions to come across, that’s what every department is there for. Thanks.

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  17. Hi! This is my first time here, i saw the link to this article on nofilmshool.com. these composition techniques are really insightful. i cant wait to employ them in my future projects. thank you so much for inspiring newbies like me. keep it up and may God continue blessing you with wisdom and kindness. Cheers from the Philippines! :)

    Post a Reply
    • Rod Marmol, I am so glad you liked it. Thank you for your kind words and support. More coming soon.

      Post a Reply
  18. Excellent article, Shane. It always helps me to see is being described, and putting all of this together really makes the connection. Thank you for that. One of the shots that really stood out to me was the choker from Terminator Salvation. How on earth did you get those highlight lines on Christian Bale’s face? I love how they make him look so animalistic and gaunt.

    Post a Reply
    • Brian Mahoney, thank you so much for your kind words, more of these on the way.

      Post a Reply
  19. I work in TV in England, many of the terms like ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ apply over here with a few differences.

    When writing notes on a shooting script for a drama or sitcom we would use W/S for wide shot (obvious) and F/L for full length. Moving in a touch it was MLS (mid length shot not the soccer league) for The Cowboy, M/S (mid shot) for the Waister.

    Moving in closer still, MCU (mid close up) would be framed at the bottom of the shirt pocket and C/U (close up) is head and shoulders and BCU (or big close up) was a whole head shot.

    The closest shot of all was nicknamed a FGBCU and I’ll leave you to work out what that means !!

    Post a Reply
    • Colin Ashby, thank you so much for sharing and sorry it has taken me so long to get back with you. What is that shot at the end. Ha ha

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  20. No worries Shane, the FGBCU is the tightest shot you can get on your zoom lens in studio and is short for F***ing Great Big Close Up !!!

    Post a Reply


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