framing (film production, aesthetics) Framing is the practice of composing shots for filming. The concept of framing being related to the idea of a rectangular frame bordering an image and in film making this being the activity of framing the subject, composing the image in the viewfinder, monitor or screen before and during filming.
There are established practices for filming, conventions for framing, and these can be applied or discarded, but this should be a conscious choice, to support the narrative, as part of the aesthetics of the film. Several misperceptions can occur when framing and these need to be overcome, so that framing is consciously decided. Mostly these misperceptions relate to habits established when taking photographs or video informally, on mobile phones or other devices.
Unlike an aesthetic image, actual life is un-composed and our sight, what we look at, is decided by our voluntary and involuntary attention. We consciously or unconsciously pick out and select what to look at, and we are psychologically able to concentrate on that. In constructed pictorial images the setting and figures are composed, visually ordered, so that attention is directed by this composition to what is most significant in the image. If the framing does not have composition then what is shown will lack visual coherence and in film this will be far more significant than in still images: if one shot in a film cuts to another shot with no sense of coherent framing and composition then what will be produced is confusion with figures moving about on the screen and in relation to each other without pattern and so without clear meaning. Taking a camera or a phone, closing one’s eyes, then shooting several shots by moving around haphazardly will produce unframed images without any composition and this is an example of working without any structured pictorial aesthetic: the setting and spatial relationship between shots becomes confused because the images are haphazard and they have no narrativity: they are random images without any clear connection or meaning.
When taking pictures, making still images informally, without referencing or utilising any system for framing, the compositional decision can be to keep the subject in the centre of the frame, or fill the frame with the subject, or keep the shot straight on to the subject. This is an everyday approach to composition and one of the practices that will occur when doing this is centring the face, the head or the body of the subject in the frame, which is similar to the practice of attention: looking at a subject, giving it attention, and placing it centrally to study it. This targeting matches the practice of psychological, subliminal attention, but this is not the practice of composition for film narrative where framing is consciously decided and a controlled.
To discuss framing beginning with the established explanation and then to develop this: the rule of thirds is stated as a principal for framing in photography and in film with the rectangle of the frame being divided into thirds both vertically and horizontally creating a grid for placing figures in the frame. The principle being that by putting a figure in the image where the horizontal third interconnects with a vertical third, at one specific place this will produce a composition that is familiar to read: the audience know where to look, so what to look at.
In terms of the use of the rule of thirds and the gold section for filming, this will place the eyes, the eyes of figures on the line of the upper third of the frame, which will remain consistent between images sizes, the close up will have the eyes on the upper third, the long shot will have the eyes/head on the upper third. This keys in the audience to look at this part of the frame to recognise the figure in the frame, enabling matched cuts and crucially, this framing gives volume in the frame to the figure. The figure will take up a larger portion of the image than if the head or face were centred in the frame and so therefore the figure will be more visible and so more significant in the image.
If, following everyday habit, the figure is centred in the frame, as though the figure is the centre of a target, the close up on the face will produce an image with an area of space above the head, which may have little or no function in the narrative and this target-like composition will produce a small volume for the figure in the overall image. With a two-thirds framing for the eyes, the face in close up will fill up the volume in the framing, ensuring that the face is the dominant subject of the image in a close up. The established practice of having the eyes, or the head of the figure on the upper two thirds line in a close up, medium or long shot will create the greatest volume for the figure. Of course there will be framings that aim to show setting rather than figure, and there are shots that have no figures, or shots that move to different framings during the shot, but the convention that is in place is the upper two-thirds line for the eyes of the figure. This makes a change in edit from one shot to another subliminal to read, the audience can without considering it understand the relationship between the shots.
In sublime painting where the aim is to show the overwhelming power of nature, its fearsome strength, there will usually be some human figures in the frame, very small in the image, to show the smallness of man, compared to the magnificence of Nature. Here, in these paintings, it will be necessary to study the image to search to find the tiny figures: this is to indicate how minimal they are, but this also indicates what occurs when the rule of thirds is not followed. If the rules of composition are shifted the viewer of a painting and the audience in the film will not be able to locate the figures without careful conscious effort. There will be times in a film narrative when the aim of the narration is to hide a figure, or to make their position unclear, to make the audience look at and study the image, but most scenes in a narrative work to indicate instantaneously and clearly what the characters are doing and so the conventions for framing, the rule of thirds, are used. The framing and composition supports the flow and progress of the narration.
Claims are made for the universality of composition, that the rule of thirds and the Golden Rectangle, which is another formal division of the frame are based on natural laws, so that there is a geometry of nature underpins image composition. This is not the case. Different cultures have different approaches to image making and if these cultures now have a degree of conformity in composition, this is only recent, and is based on the dominance of single viewpoint perspective being inaugurated in the Renaissance in painting and drawing, and then carried into contemporary aesthetic practice by the invention of photography and also into film making: the 2D camera image offering a single point perspective that in its use incorporates established practices of framing that were used in painting to develop a system of film composition that is now globally accepted. There is no natural framing: we read a composition as intended because this is the established habit, and in practice composition in film uses the rule of thirds, but this is linked to other compositional factors that complicate this rule: the number of figures in the scene, the spatial relationship between figures in a scene and the relationship between shots in the film.
To consider composition as a convention one might consider how writing can have lines reading from left to right, or right to left, with habit making the reader expect the text to be arranged in standardised and specific ways. Once the rules are established for written text, then lines of text without punctuation become confusing, and if the direction of text changes on the page or the computer screen, then it will take a conscious effort to read it. However, the direction for text, and factors like punctuation were historically established as part of the form of writing: there is no natural or universal or natural layout for words and writing. Similarly, framing and composition has been established for painting. If a decision had been made to use circular or oval frames for all pictures, as is the case with cameos and miniature portraits, then both painting and film with a circular frame would function differently in terms of their present framing and composition practices based on rectangular frames. Initially, photographic images were circular with soft edges, but then they were changed to image within rectangles. The frame, the rectangle is itself a convention of framing.
The rule of thirds gives what is thought of as aesthetic balance, because a figure on the gridlines allows for the background of the scene and for other elements in the scene to lead the eye to the figure. What should be noted here is that a single figure is being referred to and the rule of thirds is nearly always exampled in this way, but this is a conception of composition in portrait painting, where there may be only one subject in the frame or just one main figure in a group. The rule of thirds is used in film making but it is not the only aspect of framing and one might instead consider there to be symmetrical and asymmetrical framing, rather than just the rule of thirds. The rule of thirds controls where the eyes and head are placed in the frame, on the upper third, but the horizontal position in the frame is always not set by thirds.
A symmetrical composition centres the figure, with other figures objects and compositional lines leading to or receding from the central figure. The central figure may be composed in a frame within a frame, using objects to frame and isolate the figure and light will also highlight and emphasise the central or most significant figure. The religious painting or the magisterial royal portrait will often centre the figure to stress their significance in life and in the image. This symmetry is used in film, but here there is a crucial addition in film to a figure in a still image, because the centring of the figure in a moving image will often create a sense of conscious attention from the viewer, a sense that they are knowingly observing a figure in a film narrative: here the audience are focalised and positioned internally to the action of the scene. In part this phenomena occurs through the convention of painting, a figure is centred and looks out from the portrait, but in a moving image, the look of the figure may be towards the lens and therefore towards the viewer, so a degree of self-consciousness occurs in the viewing of the image. The audience is not in the film, as they would be the case with first person camera, but they have a participatory viewpoint in the scene which is distinctly different from observing a figure from a distance or at an oblique angle. This effect of focalisation in a symmetrical shot is enhanced and created because the editing of scenes will often move from an objective, non-participatory viewpoint, observing the scene, establishing the location and the figures in the scene, and then as the scene action progress it will move from these external framings to internal framings. A single static image does not have these aesthetic features, except in the case where it is said that the eyes in a painting follow you around the room: the look in the image has made the viewer self conscious and they feel that they are being looked at.
In stage and film narrative the convention is not to break the fourth wall. The actors do not look at the audience in the theatre or the camera during filming, as this creates an interaction between the characters in the story and the audience, because when they are being looked at the audience become self conscious. A symmetrical framing in a film, with a central figure, will not actually signal to the audience and acknowledge them, but the framing will have the effect of making the audience shift from a neutral observance to a heightened sense of presence, and they experiencing the presence of the figure in the film. Hence the power of the close up and the look in film narrative. The breaking of the fourth wall is usually indicated to break and undermine the realism of a story, the illusion of realism, but an audience is focalised in a story, taking different viewpoints, participating with different understandings and emotions based on the different framings. Audiences watch a story, observing, they also participate in a story, and the use of framing is part of this process. The framing of the shot changes the experience of the audience. These concepts are not part of the discussion of still photography, so that introductions to framing, using the rule of thirds are misleading.
Asymmetrical framing places the central figure at one side or in one section of the frame: the frame can be divided vertically into half, into thirds, or into quarters, not just thirds. The asymmetrical framing ensures that the background or other objects that are part of the image are read by the audience, and also, in terms of editing for continuity, there will be a coherent use of screen sections, with edits alternating figures in the frame. In a scene with two figures, asymmetrical framing will place one figure on the left and this will alternated with the second figure on the right. In editing this means that visual attention shifts between left and right, emphasising each figure and this creates a coherence in the editing, which supports film continuity. If a scene were filmed with an unstructured range of symmetrical and asymmetrical compositions then the figures in the scene, as the different shots were edited, would jump about at random in the changing framings and the audience would have to consciously locate each figure and consider what their relationship to the scene was and why the shot were framed in this way. The coherence of framing and screen sections supports continuity, the flow of the narrative. Scenes can have both symmetrical and asymmetrical framing, but this will be structured to the drama of the scene, keeping continuity and changing to emphasise elements of speech and performance: actions and reactions.
Scenes are not based on shots which have just one figure in the frame, there are two player scenes, three player scenes, four or more player scenes. Conventions for framing remain, but develop into how two pairs of figures can be framed. A two shot, an image with two figures can be framed to give the figures equality, they are balanced in the frame with equal volumes or they can be asymmetrical, one figure is dominant. Planar staging places figure on the same plane in the scene and staging in depth creates distance between figure. These two types of staging have no intrinsic narrativity, but they will have a narrativity in relation to being part of a narrative and the focalisation of the scene. The action of the story, and the framing will support, guide the attention of the audience and how they follow and interpret the action of the scene. When there are three characters in a scene, they can be in a line, in an L shape or in a triangle, and each of these configurations will offer different compositions based on the screen sections being consistent to fulfil the rules for continuity editing: there are patterns for framing three figures and the audience is familiar with these and the different framings for three figures will give different figures in the scene greater or lesser visual attention.
If one considers composition in film as the combination of a number of factors, the rule of thirds, symmetrical and asymmetrical framing, blocking, the use of screen sections in relation to directing a scene, then framing rules create the narration and focalisation for the narrative: the drama of the scene in the script and in rehearsal can suggest certain actions and positionings for the actor and this will then be supported and shown by having compositions that show and reveal this. The decision on how a scene is stage can be planned in advance or decided on set, but then the compositional choices to film the scene will move to conventionalised choices for framing for two important reasons. The scene will edit for continuity and if the shots are well chosen they will show the drama of the scene. Poorly placed shots will miss the major elements of the scene, and so they may edit for continuity, but they will be dramatically poor in terms of narration.
If there are bad habits in framing, composition, blocking and direction, the first is to compose shots at random, they will not edit with continuity and they will draw attention to their composition. This practice can occur when the filmmakers are unaware or set aside compositional rules to make each shot individual as might be done with shooting still images of an event: at the time of filming each shot in the scene will seem to be successful, but then they will not edit. Also, framing will be unsuccessful if in blocking of a scene, deciding where the actors will stand and move, this is poorly done because the action is awkwardly conceived: the director may envisage a certain shot or image and then ask for the action to be performed to match this framing, but the actors will not be able to do this convincingly. For instance, in a scene with two characters who are antagonistic toward each other the staging for the scene may keep them physically part, because the characters are hostile to each other, but the director wants one actor to push the other, and so the scene is shot with the actors in close proximity which does not match the drama and the narrative of the scene. This is trying to make the drama work for the shot, rather than for the shot to support the drama. As before, a single still image can be framed without reference to others, but when there is action, then staging this to match certain shots can easily become awkward in terms of story action. On set this problem comes across as over directing: the director will start to tell the actors to make precise movements, not for dramatic purposes, but to match the framing in the camera.
If the physical blocking of a scene is successful and each composition for each set up, each shot is well done, this does not necessarily make a well directed scene. The issue here is what the set ups in the scene needed to show in terms of story. Successful performances, blocking, camera angles and editing are not successful if they don’t show the dramatic action of the scene. It may be that a scene with three figures is filmed with three separate single shots, close ups and this gives all the narrative information that is required, or it may miss the point of the scene entirely. When filming coverage a director may rely on a standard set of framings, but there will be framings within the choices for coverage that are more effective in showing the drama. Framings are standardised, but they are applied to the individual blocking and framings for a scene which will have unique aspects. One is familiar with poor blocking from low quality television shows or low budget films. There’s been a rush in production, basic shots have been used, and the sense of drama is undermined by the repetitive use of shots and their disconnection to the story. Successful blocking, with successful framing, focuses and highlights the narrative: it is dramatically effective.
Composition by being conventional, having rules, can seem to be a confinement on creativity, and an artificial constraint, it can seem to be unneeded or unnecessary, but composition creates coherence and allows the image to be read, and for the connections between shots to have a visual emphasis that can support the narration. Some films are formalised, they are framed precisely using a limited number of framings to draw attention to the composition: this is a directorial choice for a story, putting the characters into a formal environment, but the framing for a film narrative will be consistent. The rules can be defined for a specific story based on the overall possibilities for framing.
Composition rules also allows rules to be broken to support the narration. A composition that has an unusual, empty space, can suggest an absent figure, or the potential for an event that may or may not occur. When the camera, the shot changes position, but the reason for this is not clear in terms of a coherent progression the audience work to follow the change in terms of narrative, but if this is not entirely coherent, why the shot changed, then the audience will look for a narrative reasons for this. For example: There are two figures queuing to buy coffee, one of them is behind the other, and the composition is balanced with a mid-shot of the two figures, if this then cuts to a high angle shot, showing the back of one of the figures in close up, there is an unexpected disruption, a change that is presumed to have significance for the story. The horror film or the highly charged psychological moment in a drama might be the place where what has been established as the standard composition for the shots in the film changes. The change does not have a meaning in itself, but can have meaning, as part of the narrative. The audience are reading the compositions in a film narrative as the story develops, and so a change will create anticipation, speculations, unease. This might be compared to music, there is a change of tempo, a change of key, a new inclusion of instrumentation, and this can signal a significant change or a moment of emphasis.
As part of framing in filming, there can be closed or open framings where the figure is fully and neatly composed within the framing, or where the figures moves in and out of the frame as they gesture and adjust their place in the setting. Framing can be steady or unsteady, cropping at the edge of the frame can be clean and precise or awkward, oddly cropping objects, and the angles and height of the framings can change. When undertaken randomly, using any sort of framing that seems to support the story action, this will not support narrative as a whole, but decisive changes in framing can be structured to support narrative, because they help to tell the story. By the same token camera work that shifts for no reason, that is shaky or tilted for no reason will undermine the narration: the character is off centre for no reason, the camera shakes for no reason, the camera is tilted for no reason.
Framing is standardised, but it should be designed for narration. To consider this issue questions need to be asked: Why have long shots of this scene, why keep a character in close up? Poor use of framing will have monotonous or indecisive framing and successful framing will be controlled, dynamic and dramatic: supporting successful narration. When framing is taught in film making courses or manuals as static compositional rules, indicating the need to use rule of thirds, to use the golden section, to use screen sections, to support continuity editing, this needs to be understood as part of the narration, not as good composition for a still, single image. In film, framing for one shot works in relation to another shot.
The first stage for developing framing skills is to overcome the casual habit of target framing based on attention, and then the task is developing the skills to frame within compositional conventions, in relation to the single shot, but also, crucially, how this will edit with different numbers of figures in the scene and from shot to shot. This stage and level of skills will support successful narration, and the next stage is to be able to carefully articulate framing, designing the framings across the narrative to support the story, and to design the framings within the scenes to support the narration. It is often thought that storyboarding, pre-visualisation is the key to successful directing and filming, but this is not the case if the relationship between framing, composition, blocking, performance and narration is not understood, because storyboarding a scene without the full range of knowledge is simply choosing shots that seem to suit the story one at a time. If one takes the images from a cartoon or a comic book and turns them into live action shots, they will not cut with continuity, they will tell some sort of story, but it will be with jumps and jarring, like a continuity film that has been cut up and oddly stuck back together. This is effectively what happens with poor storyboarding.
Framing is a major part of the continuity system, it has developed from painting and photography but film narration is based on a meaningful progression of moving images edited one after the other, and so framing has to be part of a coherent progression: A gook looking shot well composed is not necessarily a shot that functions successfully as part of a narrative. Framings need to be based on the narration of the story, and this is why it can be understood as a directorial task: where the camera is placed, the angle it gives, how it frames the figures has to be based on the storytelling, not on the attractiveness of the shot.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019