Know the Basics, Part 2

It’s been a while since I hit on the Know the Basics series that I started with my first rule of cutting.  Now seemed like a good time to revisit it.  This rule usually has to be followed while a piece is in production, but depending on your footage, you could also influence this in post.  What am I talking about?  Why, the rule of thirds, of course.

Editing Rule #2: Use the rule of thirds to compose shots that are visually interesting and engaging.

If any of you have ever taken a photography class, you know the rule of thirds.  For those of you that haven’t, let me sum it up for you.  Shots with the subject perfectly in the center of your frame are boring.  They also don’t guide the audience’s eye to what you want or need them to see.  Rather than leave a subject in the dead center of the frame, picture the frame as divided up into 9 boxes, 3×3, like this:

See the green dots were the points of the box intersect?  Those are good focal points.  One of them is the place you want your subject.  If you have a good director and DP on your team, chances are some of your footage has already been shot using the rule of thirds.  If not, and you’re working with film or HD video, you may be able move and scale the picture to create a rule of thirds effect.  If you’re using standard definition video, this trick will degrade the footage noticeably, so it isn’t recommended.

How does it work?  Well, let’s say you have a shot of a girl sitting on the bed, looking to the right.  Unfortunately, she’s centered in the shot.  However, our footage is HD, so we have some room to play.  If she’s looking to the right, I’m going to shift this picture to the left, to emphasize the direction she is looking in.  The audience will look at her and their eyes will follow her line of site.  (For this to be effective, in the next shot, we should see what she is looking at, this time on the right side of the frame.)  What do I do about the picture, which is now partially in the frame, partially out?  I will scale it up enough to fill the frame again in it’s new location.  HD footage can be scaled up to about 30% of it’s original size with no apparent loss in quality anywhere but on an HD television.  The web and SD TVs are nice and forgiving of this trick.

If you need to get the hang of the rule of thirds a bit, try going out and taking some still pictures with your digital camera.  If it has a grid function to it, so much the better.  Even if it doesn’t, try this, take 2 pictures of some nice, stationary objects.  In one, center the picture.  In the other, move it to one of the four intersections on the real or imagined grid.  Make sure it’s a logical choice.  I may take a picture of a cup on a table throwing a shadow.  I would shoot the cup head on, and move it so you could see the shadow spilling across the frame.  Now, just as an experiment, ask some friends or family which picture looks more interesting.  On average, the pictures using the rule of thirds should be more popular than ones without.  If you want to see some existing examples of rule of thirds, do a Google image search for the terms.  You get a ton of examples.

Also, in watching movies, keep an eye open for the rule of thirds in action.  For example, in the first desert shot of Lawrence of Arabia, director David Lean filled the shot with tall sand dunes, and had Lawrence and his guide emerge over one in the upper right corner of the frame.  The shot was very wide, and the two riders and their camels were mere specs.  Their positioning made them seem even more small and insignificant.  That’s a good use of rule of thirds.

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