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frame, framing, in frame

framing a shot Definitions: A frame is a single image of film or video. Framing (a shot) involves composing the visual content of a series of frames as seen from a single point of view, i.e., a fixed camera. In frame is the term used by screenwriters to indicate the entrance of a person or thing into a framed shot.

Background: The “frame” of fine art was adopted by photography and then filmmaking to describe the borders of the camera lens. When framing a shot, the filmmaker creates a visual within the dimensions of the lens just as a painter creates a visual within the dimensions of a canvas. A major difference is that most framed shots include people and/or things in motion.  Another is that the first objective of framing is not to create a picture worth a thousand words; it is to advance the motion picture’s narrative.

Below are popular guidelines for framing a shot. Many have their roots in photography and some in Western fine art.

Establishing Shot

The farther a subject is from the camera, the more important its relationship to its surroundings. Shots in which distance makes facial expressions unreadable tend to be establishing shots, so-called because they establish the locales of the action to come. A common establishing shot would be characters entering building. Masterful establishing shots add more than where to the narrative. In the frame below from “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), it is established the place is a desert waterhole. But watching the distant figure of Lawrence approach, we are impressed with how vast, empty and lethal the surroundings are. The desert becomes a character itself.


Lead Space

When a character looks at someone or something outside the frame, the character's positioning should favor the side of the frame opposite his line of sight. Lead space is the line-of-sight portion of the frame with nothing in the foreground. This technique is particularly favored when filming conversations in which the character spoken to is off-screen. There are various phenomenological explanations why lead space does what it does, but the bottom line is lead space is essential to the illusion filmmakers seek. Below are examples of lead space, the first from "Titanic" (1997) and second from "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013).

cinematography framing

Rule of Thirds

Landing points of focus tend to fall along the intersections of two horizontal and two vertical lines, each set of lines dividing the screen into thirds. From an intersection, the eye tends to move along the vertical or horizontal line to another intersection. Accordingly, a frame’s main subject or subjects should occupy an intersection and continue along the horizontal or vertical line from it. Ideally the eyes of subjects looking inside the frame should either occupy an intersection or be pointed at one. For instance, in the frame below from “Bridesmaids” (2012), the eyes of the first two women, Kristen Wiig (left) and Rose Byrne, occupy the top intersections while the eyes of the far right woman, Maya Rudolph, are pointed at the top left intersection. The torsos of Wiig and Byrne each follow the lines to and through the lower intersections. Along the horizontal line of the lower right intersection we see the hand of Byrne, whose arm is embracing Rudolph. Of course, like all cinematography rules, Rule of Thirds is a rule until you can break it successfully.

Rule of Thirds

Diagonal or Dynamic Tension

As noted, our visual focus is not fixed even when we view a static image. Images that invite our vision to move horizontally and vertically are easier to understand.  We greet diagonal compositions with uncertainty that generates tension. It's a visual effect first discovered by fine art. Former art student Adolf Hitler was certainly aware of it when he designed the Nazi flag. Diagonal lines of floors, windows, shadows, trees, etc. are elements filmmakers use to invoke tension. The thriller “North by Northwest,” (1959) gets our hearts beating with the opening credits (see below).

dynamic tension

A diagonal technique unique to filmmaking is the Dutch angle, whose origin was in German cinema during World War I. Germany insisted that films shown in Germany be made in Germany, which led to two distinct schools of filmmaking—German and Hollywood. German filmmaking took its inspiration from Expressionist painting, emphasizing states of mind over storytelling. The Dutch angle, which involved shooting with a titled camera, was a popular device for evoking tension and anxiety. It was adopted after World War I by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, John Huston, Jacques Tourneur and Orson Wells, who appears below in a Dutch angle shot from "Citizen Kane" (1941).

Dutch angle

Related Terms:     POV shot    180 Degree Rule    Thirty Degree Rule    MTV style editing