Book Notes: Picture Composition for Film and Television

Here are my notes, quotes, and thoughts from Composition for Film and Television by Peter Ward, a text book from 1996 that I used in college and recently found in one of our closets. It's full of a bunch of good reminders and surprising wisdom. Glad I pulled this one out for a night!

"If you, unknowing, are able to create masterpieces in color, then unknowledge is your way. But if you are unable to create masterpieces in color out of your knowledge, then you ought to look for knowledge."

I love this quote. I think the best things in life are intentionally made instead of things that just happen to us. Work ethic vs. natural talent. Some people are born with innate abilities and excel in some areas while the rest of us have to work hard and creating beautiful photos and videos is no exception. This is a big part of why I enjoy reading text books like this from time to time.

Eye movement must be continuous and smooth and be led in a premeditated route across the relevant parts of the subject matter without any distracting detours to unimportant visual elements in the frame.

It's amazing watching videos on YouTube to see just how many people (including myself) either aren't aware of how to lead the eye and frame the important, or they just don't care about these things. The quality of our home made videos can sky rocket if we're simply aware of these things at all times when shooting.

The image is a selected message which has to be decided by the viewer.

We can frame and position our cameras and lens however we want and do our best to convey a specific message with each frame, but ultimately the perception and comprehension lies with the viewer. It's the job of the cameraman to make the gap between what we know and what the audiences knows as small as possible.

A wide-angle lens close to the subject will increase space, emphasize movement, and depending on shot content, emphasize convergence of line and contrast of mass.

Rules like this are illuminating for most people and a great reminder for people like myself who have a hobby of shooting, but can forget even the simplest of concepts.

A well designed composition will provide new visual interests for the second and possibly third circuits. If the main visual route into and out of the composition is the melody of the piece, the secondary design elements can provide variation and variety on the main theme.

A great shot draws the towards not just one big thing, but also frames up second and third interest to keep the audience engaged and on their toes.

A wider shot may be used to show relationships, create atmosphere, or express feeling, but requires tighter design control of the composition to achieve these objects.

It's why we love time lapses, travel videos, and more. We love atmosphere and relationships and to feel emotions while we watch things. Wide shots help create that sense of wonder.

The closer you get to the main subject, the easier it is for the viewer to understand the priorities of the shot. The close shot is efficient in communication and is economic in production.

This is one of the reasons Casey Neistat has been such a successful vlogger. He understands composition and especially the intimacy built from a close shot of him talking. It's efficient in communicating, builds intimacy and trust and it's cheap and easy to shoot.

The eye focuses on a very small segment of the total field of view, but the peripheral vision is significant in establishing location.

Speaks for itself.

The usual weakness of home movies is their inability to separate subjective interest from the considerations of structure and design. The content of the videos dominates its form.

This is where the big time vloggers are able to separate themselves from the rest of the pack. They focus heavily on content and providing something that is of interest to a wide group of people. BUT they also focus on the form of their videos and the structure and design of their shots. The people who make their best home video have a strong balance between content and form. See: Casey Neistat, iJustine, DailyVee, Roman Atwood, etc

This is a big part of why I don't love my vlogs. I feel like I often trade one for the other. The last few days, I've focused on content and having quality conversations, but I've put zero focus on form. The days I want to focus on form are the days where I often don't pay attention to content or feel like I have nothing to say.

Before deciding camera position, lens angle, framing, etc. it is worth considering the following:

  • What is the purpose of the shot?
  • Is the shot fact or feeling?
  • In what context will the shot be seen?
  • What precedes? What follows?
  • What will be the most important visual element in the shot?

Love these.

Light determines tonal differences, outline, shape, color, texture, and depth.

I've only recently begun to pay attention to lighting especially when it comes to lighting people. It's amazing how big of a difference it can make when shooting videos.

Attention often requires unbalance, visual shock, stimulation, and arresting images.

Again, look at the successful vloggers on YouTube. They're constantly trying to stir the pot to keep people watching their videos and, as a result, money in their pockets.

Stage everything. where to stand, where to move, etc.

"I want to make a distinction between 'commandment' and 'convention'. Photographically speaking, I understand a commandment to be a rule, axiom, or principle, an incontrovertible fact of photographic procedure which is unchangeable for physical and chemical reasons. On the other hand, a convention to me, is a usage which has become acceptable through repetition. It is a tradition rather than a rule. With time the convention becomes commandment, through force of habit. I feel the limiting effect is both obvious and unfortunate." -Gregg Toland

I love this quote. It's something that applies to life far beyond photography and filmmaking. 

Overall, I'm glad I went back through this old textbook to find my best notes and highlights. It was a great refresher for me as I continue to make videos for myself and clients. I wouldn't recommend picking the book up for yourself as it's over 20 years old and a bit dry at best. But if this quick digest has been any help to you, let me know in the comments!