September 10, 2013

Studying Composition #1

I just finished studying the chapter "Composition" from Joseph V. Mascelli's celebrated book "The Five C's of Cinematography". For a student of cinema, this book is perhaps one of the richest source of knowledge and film-making wisdom. Within a week, it has completely changed my way of looking at motion picture frames. To consolidate my learning, I have decided to embark on a journey of studying composition from great movies. I will share some of my notes here in this new column, starting today.

Have a good look at the frame below, from "Thelma and Louise" (1991, Directed by Ridley Scott, Cinematography by Adrian Biddle):

     This picture has several compositional gems. It is an Extreme Long Shot capturing a stunning landscape, but the Centre of Interest is the male player – his size just appropriate with respect to the rest of the image, making him just a little more important than the landscape. He has been positioned roughly on the imaginary vertical line dividing the frame into thirds. His light-coloured vest and hat, and his posture capture our interest immediately. The three short vertical poles near him also “frame” him in a way for us, localising our interest in him.

     He is facing towards the right and there is more space in that direction, giving the image a classical balance. This off-centre composition also holds true for the building in the background and all these elements contribute towards our sub-conscious motivation to look toward the right of the frame (which for English-Hindi reading people is more pleasant than looking toward the left of the frame). There is a torrent of wind and dust and a light lump of hay is caught in the wind adding more balance to the picture because the pictorial mass of that matches with the actual mass of structures concentrated more toward the left of the frame than right. The finely composed masses with heavy bases present an immovable, dominant image, well contrasted with the dust and the hay caught in the wind.

     The electric poles toward the right enhance the linear perspective and the feeling of depth. There are several straight lines in the image suggesting masculinity and strength. Long horizontal lines add to the restfulness of the setting, while short verticals break their monotony. There are several L-shaped forms in this image, including the posture of the man, adding to the aesthetic merits.

     Apart from the stunning background, efforts have been taken to enhance it – observe the wonderful contrast visible through the windows on the first floor of the building, thus contributing to the feeling of depth. Despite all these details, simplicity remains a major merit of the composition and there is almost nothing in the frame that needs to be removed to increase its effectiveness.


  1. Thank you for this excellent analysis, if possible kindly put up a shot composition analysis article about "NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MAN"
    thank you

  2. Thanks Naresh. It is all what I learnt from that book, so I won't take any credit.
    Will try to come up with such a study of the Coen Brothers gem you have named.