Friday, August 29, 2014

A Bit to the Left

Should I move the camera a little bit to the left or a little bit to the right?

You stand back and strike the pose of a renaissance painter about to carve into marble and, while it’s no Venus de Milo, what you’re about to do is equally as delicate. But you’re on a schedule and if you don’t get the shot in the next five minutes, you could easily find yourself scraping your feet as you look for another job. Harsh, but this is serious business.

This is composition.

For those who don’t have the time, the willpower, or the want to read for themselves: composition is basically how things are put together in an image (moving or not). We can look at articles like Chris Knight’s “The Ultimate Guide to Composition,” as a bouncing off point.

Images in their basic simplicity, are made of lines. Lines that form boxes, lines that intersect, and lines that draw the viewers’ eyes to where they need to be. Think of composition as a laser pointer. It's a subtle technique that filmmakers will use to get someone to subconsciously focus in on one aspect of the shot. But just talking about the technical jargon behind a film doesn't necessarily teach us what that means. Why should we use center composition? What's the difference between diagonal and horizontal arrangements? Is composition really that big of a deal?

And my answer is: yes, it is.

But don't just take it from me. Don't just take it from Chris Knight. Take it from a physical product that was successful in its own right, that had this technique honed down to an art. Let's look at Pixar's The Incredibles. Directed by Brad Bird, and released back in 2004, the film is a cult classic (within animation).

Really, it's a movie you either love or hate and I will be the first to say I had been the latter up until a few years ago. Honestly, I could go on forever about why this movie was one of the most well-put together films of its genre (writing and plot issues aside), but today we'll focus on its composition.

For time's sake we'll look at its opening sequence:

Right away you'll notice these shots fall into what we call center composition. It's literally taking your point of focus and forcing it right into the middle of the scene. It's not something that most people recommend doing, and it's certainly not something that can be done well.

But why?

This in part, lies with how our brain takes in information. Yes, we have a certain affinity towards the symmetrical but there is something about focusing ourselves into the middle of an image that throws us off. Objects can be symmetrical, but an image has to have action. And that's the problem with centering your subjects. It immediately erases any depth around them and gets rid of the action in a scene. This is because your image has to literally stop in the middle. It's too abrupt for our senses to take in from a "two-dimensional" point of view. And it's boring.

But this is why it can be such a powerful tool as well. As seen in the above video, centering the shot only works to really set up the feel of the interviews. While candid, they don't do much to give us insight into how these characters works. Yes, yes, we understand how they might feel but for the moment we are the interviewers. The common public that looks at these heroes in quite a two-dimensional way. And that's the problem set up, because these heroes are human. They make mistakes and they certainly aren't gods.

For those who haven't seen it, the core of the movie is the dynamic between those who have superpowers and those who do not. For years, these heroes were idolized and put up on a pedestal. But through a series of events, their powers back-fire on them and they're forced to hang up the masks and gloves. They are forced to fit in. Yes, there's a lot more to the actual movie's plot but stay with me.

The above "interviews" only work because of the composition. The image is scaled down and positioned right smack dab in the middle of the frame. Adding to that, they've made it so every character is also put within the middle of their own shot. This gives us a layered centering of objects. They force us to look at these people as the movie looks at them.

As superheroes they are the center of attention. They own their surroundings in an almost arrogant sort of way. And because we've got nothing to look at but them, we feel uncomfortable. Obviously, this is old. Obviously, something isn't right. But in that moment, we are the public before the storm. All of our attention is focused on these people and we are literally watching their every move. But there's something about giving them all of our attention, that makes us feel uneasy.

Then it transitions to the sequence below:

While it may not be noticeable with how it was uploaded, but the composition changes in many ways. We've just faded out from the interviews and our perspective literally increases (meaning the screen literally gets bigger). It may not be what you consider composition but it is. It's creating invisible lines that expand our view and it adds dimensions.

Before, were were just watching the characters. Now, we are actually getting a glimpse at what they do. Immediately, the movie utilizes everything from golden triangles to the "Rule of Thirds." As the shots are set up, we can see that hardly anyone dominates the space and hardly anyone is centered in the middle anymore. This is a fantastic way to put action and life into the scene. From the skyscrapers in the back (during the car chase) to the sidewalk as the little old lady cries for her cat, the filmmakers are creating subtle lines that pull our attention inward to the points of focus (mostly Mr. Incredible in this case).

By not having him centered anymore, they also start to engage the audience. We are constantly moving our eyes to find the subject of the shot. And for an action-heavy sequence, this works delightfully well in keeping us focused on the movie. The constant movement confuses us just enough to make us want to notice everything. But it also makes us start to root for him. For the superheroes. And coming from those interviews, it feels good. Because we want to, don't we? I mean, they're superheroes.

Even in the last few shots, as she flings herself in to the sunset, we are left wanting more. We've come a long way from just staring at these people as they grin from the center of an interview to rooting for them as they do what they do best. And that's fantastic because it won't last. But by making us have to work to root for these guys, it nicely sets us up to become more emotionally invested as things start to crumble.

And this couldn't be achieved without proper composition. We, as an audience, don't want to just sit there and stare at something head-on. We need movement. We need depth. We need action. We need the characters to move: a little bit to the right, a little bit up, a little bit down, and a little bit to the left.

The Son of a Simpleton

They call him the man with many names. They call him Leonardo Pisano Bigollo, or Leonardo Pisano, or Leonardo Bonacci. They call him Leonardo Fibonacci and even, by some, “the most talented Western mathematician of the Middle Ages.” He did not however, actually discover the number sequence named after him (the Fibonacci numbers) as most would otherwise suspect. Most of Fibonacci’s fame should be attributed to his 1202 composition of “Liber Abaci” — a book that spread the Hindu-Arabic numeral system throughout Europe. 

Fibonacci’s early life appears to be a bit of a mystery. There are two separate theories which shed some light on why Fibonacci came to adopt so many names. The first theory presents Fibonacci’s father as a wealthy merchant named Guglielmo Bonacci. Some even go further claiming that Bonacci was the consul for Pisa. 

(Fibonacci was from Pisa, you know, the place with the off-kilter tower.) 

Alternatively, according to a history text by mathematician Tobias Dantzig, his father was "a lowly shipping clerk nicknamed Bonaccio, which, in the idiom of the period, meant 'simpleton’. This would explain the name given to his son... 'Fibonacci,' the 'son of a simpleton.’” Someone on Yahoo divulges that Leonardo's father, Guglielmo Bonacci, was a kind of customs officer in the North African town of Bugia now called Bougie where wax candles were exported to France. They explain that this is why candles are still called "bougies" in French. Despite the controversy concerning Bonacci’s profession, Fibonacci described his father in the introduction to “Liber Abaci” as “a public official… in the Bulgia customs house established for the Pisan merchants.” 

So why, if the sequence of numbers most commonly referred to as the “Fibonacci numbers” weren’t actually discovered by Fibonacci, what gives with the name? In “Liber Abaci,” the middle-age mathematician (that is, the mathematician from the middle ages, not to be confused with a middle-aged mathematician) posed, and solved a problem regarding the rate of reproduction in rabbits. The solution, generation by generation, turned out to be the same sequence of numbers we associate with the formula for the Golden Ratio: which occurs when a ratio is the same as the ratio of their sum to the larger of the two quantities. 

In the Fibonacci sequence of numbers, each number is the sum of the previous two numbers. Fibonacci began the sequence not with 0, 1, 1, 2, as modern mathematicians do but with 1,1, 2, etc. He carried the calculation up to the thirteenth place (fourteenth in modern counting), that is 233, though another manuscript carries it to the next place: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377. Fibonacci did not speak about the golden ratio as the limit of the ratio of consecutive numbers in this sequence.

Rabbits are far from the only animals affected by the Fibonacci number sequence. One of my favorite connections actually has to do with bees. The most profound example is by dividing the number of females in a colony by the number of males (females always outnumber males). The answer is typically something very close to 1.618. In addition, the family tree of honey bees also follows the familiar pattern. Males have one parent (a female), whereas females have two (a female and male). Thus, when it comes to the family tree, males have 2, 3, 5, and 8 grandparents, great-grandparents, gr-gr-grandparents, and gr-gr-gr-grandparents respectively. Following the same pattern, females have 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so on. Anyway, it seems as though Fibonacci has been a buzz word for a while now. 

We know Fibonacci is a man of many names, but he’s also a man with many things named after him.  For instance, there are many mathematical concepts named after Fibonacci, usually due to their connection to the Fibonacci numbers. Examples include the Brahmagupta–Fibonacci identity, the Fibonacci search technique, and the Pisano period. Beyond mathematics, namesakes of Fibonacci include the asteroid 6765 Fibonacci and the art rock band The Fibonaccis

It is my belief that every member of “The Fibonaccis” band would have burned at the stake if they presented this during Fibonacci’s time. 

While we’re on the topic of music, I’ll end by presenting a beautiful musical translation of the Fibonacci number sequence. Enjoy. 

The Mathematics of Composition

Moderns Film could be considered one of the most advanced forms of media we have today. When done well, films effectively combine the elements of sound, composition, story, talent and more to create one fluid cinematic piece. It takes years of hard work and sheer talent to master all of these elements. Until then, it’s a good idea to focus in on one area of film that interests you more then the others.

Chris Knight, writer of, has created an ultimate guide that makes learning one such element much easier. Specifically, composition – a defining element of film, and pretty much the defining element of photography.

Wait, You mean that rule of thirds thingy?

Ah yes, but as Knight proves in his article, it goes far beyond that nine-box rule.

With pictures and examples guiding his definitions all the way though, Knight provides a clear guide to the mathematics behind beautiful composition.

After reading his article, and in an effort to beat Arturo to the punch, I’ve decided to review some of my own work to see if it stands up to the test.

Center Composition

The first and most basic type of composition Knight mentions is center composition. For this I used a picture I took while in the middle of nowhere. The road stretched on for miles and the lighting was fantastic. With flat land on both sides of the road, this was a perfect time to use symmetry to my advantage.

It's not mathematically perfect, but still an effective example.

Rule of Thirds

The classic. The 101 of photography. When unsure how to compose a photo it's best to stick with the good 'ol threes. I found this photo of a prairie dog which falls right on the sweet spot. 

Golden Triangles 

When playing with angles, golden triangles are a great way to check composition. Knight uses a picture of the eiffel tower as a great example. 

I found one picture from Santa Monica that again, is not mathematically perfect, but shows how this type of composition can have a compelling effect. 

Frame Within a Frame

Another type of composition he mentions is the frame within a frame effect. 

It's a great way to give an extra layer of depth to the photo while at the same time putting extra focus on the subject. I managed to achieve this once this summer as Erin walked through the main gate at Mount Rushmore. I was lucky enough to capture the moment by chance, but usually you need to plan out shots like this. 

In this picture her figure does not fall right on the rule of thirds line. In fact, she's quite a bit under it. But it slightly dwarfs her and makes Mount Rushmore seem even larger. The point is that in the end, art is art, and mathematics can't always determine its effectiveness. But it's a great starting point for discovering what might look cool. 


The first and most well known type of composition is center composition. As the name suggests, it places the subject or main focus of the shot.
Center Composition from Hot Fuzz
Center Composition seen again in Jaws.
Very often center composition will have symmetry in the shots. As the article note, director Wes Anderson uses lots of center composition in his films, almost all of them having near perfect symmetry.

The next type mentioned in the Rule of Thirds. The rule of thirds can be very helpful in placing important parts of the image where the eye will be drawn to them. This is achieved by drawing two evenly spaced horizontal lines across the frame and two evenly spaced vertical lines down the screen. This creates nine equally sized boxes. It is along those lines and at those intersections where the parts of the shot you think are most important should be placed to stand out the most. 
The rule of thirds is pretty incredible...get it?
As seen in this shot from The Incredibles, many of the important details of the shot; the phone, the baby, both characters eyes, are either on or very close to the lines and intersections.

The next type of composition is called The Golden Triangle in reference to the golden ratio, which the composition type uses. The main line of the shot bisects the screen into two diagonally. The line is called the major line. Another lines comes out from this line in a perpendicular manner creating the triangle.

There are two types of diagonal composition. The first type, sinister, goes from right to left, while the second type, baroque, go from left to right. This can often be told by the subject of the shots face and where they look. 
I'm not allowed to talk about this one
In this shot from Fight Club, we can see the sinister diagonal composition in Tyler Durden's gaze.
Below is an example of Baroque composition.

the final type of composition is perhaps the most artistic. It's called the Golden Ratio. The article describes the golden ratio as "aesthetically pleasing proportion where the largest shape is divided by a perfect square, and the resulting rectangle is in exact proportion to the original one" 

The golden ratio is best know as being involved in the fibonacci sequence, where a number is the sum of the previous two numbers. This appears everywhere in nature. The most common image associated with it is the golden spiral. 

Note: Spiral not actually golden.
This composition type was very popular in renaissance art and more recently, fighting Ukrainian politicians.
 In the below image we see the golden ratio in Paul Thomas Anderson's epic There Will Be Blood.
Actually very little blood.


Center Composition

Even though center composition is the first topic in the series of articles, I actually read them all, I just found the theme of center composition to be intriguing. Like they said in the article "If one were to hand a camera to an aunt, and ask her to take a picture, she would most likely photograph the subject in the center of the frame." Basically, center composition is one of the most basic forms of framing. But because it is so simple, it is so easy to mess up. Being at a student film school, I see a lot of techniques that turn out extremely well, and some, well, not the best. Even though it is such a simple use of framing, Wes Anderson's work displays that just about any technique, when perfected, can be a staple of any great film, or film-maker. Here is an example of his work in relations to center composition.

Here are some other examples of center composition in movies:

Iron Man (2008) - Director of Photography: Matthew Libatique

Dirty Harry (1971) - Director of Photography: Bruce Surtees

The Shining (1980) - Director of Photography: John Alcott

Almost Famous (2000) - Director of Photography: John Toll

Meloncholia (2011) - Director of Photography: Manuel Alberto Claro

Here is a clip I shot for my FF1 film: "A Shrouded Order" that utilized center composition. I'm not saying its a good example, just an attempt by me. Feel free to criticize.


A Knight in Golden Armor

Get it? Chris KNIGHT? GOLDEN ratio? I digress.

I'm a big fan of this article, mainly because our man Chris Knight found an unpretentious, non-patronizing way to tell us not-so-savvy-with-a-camera people how to make small adjustments to better our poorly composed scenes. He understands what a film/television student really needs: big pictures with not a lot of words underneath.

This is a circle.
I've had a slew of high school teachers attempt to explain the golden ratio, and all I really got out of it was that I would never pursue a career in math and George Clooney was scientifically gorgeous (duh).

Symmetry is sexy.
But along came Mr. Knight with his diagrams and BAM! I am now a member of the club known as "Basic Understanding of Rectangles". Shot a little too crowded? Take ten paces to your left and try again. Subject look a little boring in the center of the frame? Shimmy over to your right and the interesting shot is yours.

The most adorable Rule of Thirds.

I was most affected by one of the smaller points of the article. Knight explained the basic technique of using a frame within the frame (a tunnel, a tree, a window, etc...). But, you can also use darkness as a frame. If you want to highlight a subject in the distance, keep your foreground dark. I always found lighting tricky, but this quick little tip really helped keep the basics of lighting in perspective.

Obviously these concepts are only the basics of composition, but it's a great start to the more complex aspects of setting up a shot. So put down your "Composition for Dummies" book, check out Chris Knight's "The Ultimate Guide to Composition", and explore the depths (of field... ha...) of framework. 

Composition & Bokeh

The part of these articles that I was drawn to was bokeh. I personally love the aesthetic of bokeh. Knight says “Obsession with bokeh is bad for your photography.” I somewhat agree with this statement. Too much can become repetitive and boring, however, I think if you use it in the right way and for the right photograph it can be amazing. Sometimes it’s better to see all the details and textures throughout the frame and other times those details don’t add anything. It really comes down to personal preference and judgement.

For example, in this photograph I think the bokeh works very well because it would be too busy with every detail in focus. You would get lost in all of the details and wouldn’t be drawn to the intended subject.

Chris Knight did a great job explaining some complicated concepts. Talking about composition rules such as the Baroque Diagonals, the Golden Ratio, the Rule of Thirds can become overwhelming. I like how he stated these are rules but are not rules at the same time. If you follow these rules it will not always lead to a provoking photograph. However, it is obviously important to read about and understand the rules for reference. I loved how well Knight explained what each rule was and how to apply most of them. After reading these articles I am more confident in what they are and how to integrate them. I’m looking forward to incorporating this new information into my future class, personal, and professional projects.