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Storytelling through Composition

Many of you have expressed an interest in composition: what makes a good frame or a bad one. There are a few classic frames that I customize to give them flare. I think this will help all of you find your compositional voice. Remember that the best creative inspiration can come from not always following the rules.

 

The Basics:

 

Wide Shot aka Doinker:

This usually is used to educate the audience on place and geography. The establishing shot lets the audience know where everyone is. In my opinion, these frames are underutilized. I like seeing where my characters are, the time and space. It sets the tone, the mood, and it is where all light comes from, all motivation, all conception. This can be used to show the peril that your character is about to face; it can show scope; it can make you cry; it can ground you, create a sense of loneliness, move you, have you just say “WOW!” There is power in a wide shot. I have been spinning film through a camera for about 20 years now, and I still go to movies and drop my jaw with the incredibly talented cameramen/women who bring this art of cinematography to life.

Depending on the film, it can be a helicopter shot, a sweeping crane shot, a slow moving dolly or just a Doinker, which is one of those weird terms. This was introduced to me by McG on We Are Marshall. He kept saying, “We will set the camera up here for the Doinker.” I loved it and have been using the word to describe a locked off shot that “doinks” onto the screen ever since. McG has a passion for the entire process of filmmaking and inspires me creatively with his humor and vision.

Wide shots

Wide shots


 

The Head to Toe:

This is a shot that takes in the actor’s whole body from their head to their toes. It can be used to educate the audience about time and space, to show body language, show wardrobe, get a laugh, etc.

Head to toe shots

Head to toe shots

 

The Cowboy:

This is one of my favorite shots, not only for the name, but also for its origin. This shot is a frame of an actor’s body cut off at the knees. The origin of this shot came from John Ford Westerns. He was one talented director. Please look at this man’s frames. They will blow you away.

This shot was what Ford used to show his cowboys. To show a cowboy, you need to show his gun, and the holster fell right at the knee line. This frame is a great comedic frame as well. It can set the stage for a range of emotions: confrontation, camaraderie, fear or love.

John Ford Cowboy

John Ford Cowboy

John Ford Cowboy

John Ford Cowboy

Cowboy shots

Cowboy shots

 

The Two Shot:

This shot can be very subjective, with a variety of sizes depending on the story you are trying to tell. A two shot can be two bodies in frame, head to toe, cowboy, or a tight two shot with just heads in the frame. I used this intimacy in Deadfall, directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky, which comes out in theaters December 7th. Like Deadfall on Facebook.

In Crazy/Beautiful, the two shot became a very powerful tool in showing intimacy, vulnerability, claustrophic framing. A two shot of just two actors’ heads in profile created this intimacy, this intoxication. That is love. It moves you, makes you do things you never thought you would, which is exactly what director John Stockwell wanted to convey with Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez in Crazy/Beautiful.

Intimate profile shot from Crazy/Beautiful

Intimate profile shot from Crazy/Beautiful

 

Breaking the Rules:

Kristen Dunst and Jay Hernandez were two people you would never put together as a couple, and that was the magic. Using very unique framing and unorthodox composition, we tried to tell the story of love finding its way. Teenagers – they are unpredictable. I have one, and they can throw you for a loop! I wanted my framing to be like a teenager: off, unpredictable, not perfect, still finding themselves. It was fun to be unconventional with our coverage. John Stockwell was fearless in his cinematic vision. He pushed me creatively. Keep it small, keep it intimate.

Off balance frames from Crazy/Beautiful

Off balance frames from Crazy/Beautiful

Two shots

Two shots

 

Stay tuned for part two of storytelling through composition next week.

Read part two of this post here.



Author: Shane

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56 Comments

  1. Shane,

    Thank you so much!

    Great stuff! Always something to learn and hopefully we’ll never stop!

    Paolo

    Post a Reply
    • paolo, thank you so much for your kind words and support. Part 2 coming in hot on Wed.

      Post a Reply
    • Israel Perez, thank you so much for all your support. Part 2 coming in Hot Wed.

      Post a Reply
  2. excellent Shane, great stuff as usual! looking foward to part 2. Was Sedona all shot on the 5d? cheers Rod

    Post a Reply
    • rod hardinge, thank you so much for your kind words. Part 2 coming in hot on Wed. Yes my Second Unit DP on AOV shot Sedona all on the Canon 5D MK II.

      Post a Reply
    • N.K.Osborne, thank you so much for your kind words. I think this is what sets us apart. Sharing knowledge and experience, not just gear and tech talk.

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  3. Gotta love those wide-angle-sweeping-compositions that demand the viewers attention.
    Thanks for posting Shane.

    Post a Reply
    • Michael LaFortune, thank you so much for your kind words.

      Post a Reply
  4. going to watch Crazy Beautiful again the lighting was excellent, gr8 post!

    Post a Reply
    • @createdbyadario, thank you so much for your kind words

      Post a Reply
  5. Great refresher on composition. Didn’t know about the cowboy shot always thought it was a standard framing composition.
    A great film to watch from John Ford is The Quiet Man starring John Wayne. Lots of great cinematography and epic looking wide shots too.

    Post a Reply
    • Gavin Bearfield-Boyd, thank you so much for your kind words and I will check it out.

      Post a Reply
  6. Always enjoy your posts, Shane, but this one touched a nerve. I often catch myself wanting to play it safe with my compositions, so it was very nice to see your examples of off-balance-framing to serve a story.

    Post a Reply
    • Tom Vandas, thank you so much for those kind words, I love to shake it up if it works for the story.

      Post a Reply
  7. Best site by far! Classy and informative. Cinematography at its best. I enjoy all of your posts. As an aside, Terminator Salvation rocked. Visually stimulating from start to finish. Keep up the fantastic work. BTW, I am wondering if you will have more on the Canon 1DC in the near future? Cheers.

    Post a Reply
    • Ron, thank you os much for your wonderful words and support. Part two coming in hot on Wednesday. Yes tests on the 1DC coming in about a week.

      Post a Reply
  8. What are three important lenses, for anyone who just bought a 5D should own?
    24mm,50mm,85mm?

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  9. In my country, even region, what u call Cowboy shot is called “American”, prety much same explanation as your. Can be “high”, where you cut of legs or “low” when u cut iff chest and up. Idea is that holster is vissible…B)

    Post a Reply
    • Stevo Vasiljevic, I just worked with Stefan Ruzowitsky on DeadFall from Austria and he called it an American as well.

      Post a Reply
    • Yes, here in Germany an Cowboy Shot is also known as an American Shot. I didn’t know that the Americans have a different term (Cowboy Shot). Very interesting.

      Post a Reply
      • Guess it`s general europe term then…B)

        Post a Reply
      • Fabio Seyding, Europe vs US with the Cowboy/American Shot. I love the different terminology.

        Post a Reply
  10. Hey Shane,
    Thank you for this great education on Composition.
    Which Focal Length do you use most often for those specific shots (Cowboy, Wide Shot/Doinker,Two Shot)? Any favorites?

    I am looking forward to Part 2 next week.

    Post a Reply
    • Fabio Seyding, you are so welcome. The cowboy I would use a 21-35mm. The Wide shots are 14.5-21mm. Two shots it is all over the place, that two shot with Kirsten Dunst was a 150mm. Part 2 is coming in hot on Wed.

      Post a Reply
  11. Hi Shane, thank you so much for your blog!! Such a wealth of information! I’m curious about the audio approach on your wide shots. Were they just mic’d up with lavs, or to actually get clean dialog do you just resort to ADR most of the time? Personally I don’t care for lav only audio that much.

    Post a Reply
    • Brad_Bromelmeier, you are very welcome and thank you for your kind words. We mic’d them with lav’s and we had a boom guy.

      Post a Reply
  12. Hi Shane, Len Foley here. This blog is an EXCEPTIONAL resource! Better than anything else I’ve seen. Thanks so much for posting this info. I am now a fan :) Len

    Post a Reply
    • Len Foley, thank you so much for these wonderful words. This is why I do it.

      Post a Reply
  13. Thanks shane, love your blog, great resource for all kinds of filmmakers. Wish more cinematographers were that open on their approach on storytelling and framing! Subscribed.

    Post a Reply
    • Raph, thank you so much for your kind words. The way I look at it is that I am at the top of my field right now, why not educate and inspire.

      Post a Reply
  14. Hi Shane, I rarely post anything on websites but I just had to say thank you for this entry! I learned a lot. Would you be able to elaborate on the cowboy shot? What you stated intrigues me:

    “This frame is a great comedic frame as well. It can set the stage for a range of emotions: confrontation, camaraderie, fear or love.”

    I knew where the shot originated from but never thought of the storytelling elements it can be used for. Thanks so much.

    Post a Reply
    • Jamieson de Guzman, first off you are very welcome and thank you for kind words. The cowboy frame can show a gun,show peril, danger, it can show the physical comedy of a person’s outfit, his hand moments.

      Post a Reply
  15. this is awesome Shane. a very good lesson of position of framing and the part of breaking the rolls its awesome. keep the good work I am enjoin the part 2
    thanks a lot for your share

    Post a Reply
    • visualMED, you are so welcome and I thank you so much for the wonderful words of support.

      Post a Reply
  16. Hi Shane,
    Thanks for your sharing of knowledge for us. You share the best for others ‘without reserve’; not only the good but the best. A generous ‘guru’. I hope to have a passion as yours to share to others. It’s always nice to go to the basic, time to time, and from you the basic become more inspiring.
    A question: Do you think about re-frame/cropping (in post) during shooting? sometimes or never? Once again, thank you very much.

    Post a Reply
    • Francesco Testver, thank you for these wonderful thoughtful words. This means so much to me. So many people say that I give way to much away. I love what I do, I am passionate about what I do. You are very welcome and I will continue to share. I re-framing a lot sometimes. On Act of Valor we had so many operators that I had to go back in post and frame them they way I would have liked them. It is very important to do this to keep your compositional consistency.

      Post a Reply
  17. I love me a good wide shot. Always great to let something play outside of the usual mid/close up. Thanks.

    Post a Reply
  18. Hi Shane,
    I bought the book DSLR Cinema by Kurt Lancaster few days back and came to know your name from there and then followed all the artifacts, movie clips till I reached here. It feels so good when such an experienced person like you shares his knowledge and takes so much time and puts so much effort to write such an eye-opening article! There is so much to learn and see…and yes, shoot :-)

    Life is beautiful and God bless.

    I completed my first DSLR movie few days back and it is here. https://vimeo.com/49167778. I will be honored if you can take 1min 30 secs of your time to leave some feedback. Much appreciate it. It’s really novice though and as I said this is my first DSLR.

    Thank you so much. – Shan

    Post a Reply
    • Shan Sinha, thank you so much for your wonderful words and support. Just checked out your first film. Nice shot of the cool tones looking out the window with the bars silhouette, loved the close up of the rain hitting the pavement. I want to direct you to Patrick at http://www.knowbystillmotion.com. They will give you the building blocks of telling your stories. Patrick and his team are incredibly talented and would be perfect for you just starting out.

      Post a Reply
  19. Thanks again Shane for your feedback – it means a lot to me. I’ll check out the site you mentioned.

    Post a Reply
  20. great tips, learned a lot. keep up the good work, thanks a lot

    Post a Reply
  21. Your “off balance” shots are what we call “Golden Ratio” or “Rule of Thirds” – I do like the way the geometric lines of the walls/bed in the high angle above the bed shot work!

    Post a Reply
    • Mike, thank you so much for sharing and thank you for your support

      Post a Reply
  22. Shane, I’m delighted to have found your blog. I think what’s even more telling then the fact that you take the time and effort to share your knowledge even when you’re so professionally successful is that you take even more time and effort to respond to the posts here.

    I am wondering if you could give some general advice on what would be a good book/resource to learn about the rules of creating balanced composition. Something to help novices get a good and solid grounding of the basics so that their shots look more professional and less amateurish. For example, looking at your balanced vs unbalanced shots above. While I get a vague feeling that one set is more harmonious than the other, I can’t really read the grammar of it because I lack that knowledge.

    Thanks again!

    Post a Reply
    • Vineet Bhalla, Thank you for your wonderful words. I am so sorry it has taken me so long to get back with you. But just to tell you that you helped me generate the idea for the books on lighting and composition. SO thank you very much for the idea, I hope you found my book list valuable.

      Post a Reply
  23. I really appreciate someone like yourself that shares your knowledge with us aspiring filmakers. You are a guru at what you do and I love what you teach. Will you ever tour and give workshops in Houston Texas.

    Post a Reply
    • Marcus, you are very welcome. It is my pleasure. I never really had anyone that would help light the path, so that is why I give back. Me and my team are coming to Austin 12/3-12/5. Doing lighting workshops and talks to inspire and educate. Hope to see you there

      Post a Reply
  24. Everybody have said what i want to say but yet, i learn something today, it wasn’t a Mistake when i saw your name on the cast as a DOP and i look for the name on Google which lead me to various hulburt sites, pages, blogs, i found a lot of useful tips all around your websites/blogs, you are a successful professional and you still create time to educate us. i must commend your effort i will say a BIG thank you.
    also say Job well done to you and your team..

    Post a Reply
    • OLABANJI, these are the comments that keep me going. Thank you for your wonderful words and taking the time. Many more great posts on the way

      Post a Reply

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