Breaking the Rules of Cinematic Composition

You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.” – Albert Einstein

Filmmaking and photography have a lot of rules. Once we learn these rules, we then have the ability to choose to apply or break them. Lets discuss three traditional cinematic composition rulesand how to play with them.

Breaking the Fourth Wall

The term “fourth wall” comes from theater. Since the stage is traditionally a three-walled box, the audience sees the play from the imaginary wall at the front of the stage. In cinema, the camera effectively becomes that fourth wall. Typically speaking, characters seem unaware of the fact that they are fictional characters within the story. When actors acknowledge the existence of the camera, the illusion that we are simply witnessing an event is broken, and we as viewers become part of the story. 

Having an actor glance toward the camera, perform a monologue to the viewer, or even share what she thinks about a situation can be interesting storytelling techniques to explore. Great examples of breaking the fourth wall can be found in Fight Club,” “Annie Hall, Amelie, The Wolf of Wall Street, and the wildly popular show House of Cards.

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Breaking proportion and scale

We usually try to maintain the correct proportions and shapes of the objects/subjects in our compositions. Distorted faces or fallingbuildings are not very pleasing unless intentionally warping the perspective of a shot enhances a particular element in the context of the story. For example, we could use a fisheye lens to create the sensation that someone is experiencing an altered state of mind and it can make a child seem like a cartoon character. We can also distort the sense of scale of an object, like a telephone for example, to identify it as source of anxiety, fear, or the medium for some upcoming bad news.

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Breaking the rule of thirds

If our subject is speaking directly to the camera, like a news broadcaster or an instructor offering a tutorial, following the traditional rule of thirdsmay not make our shot more dynamic. In these cases, centering our subject can be more attention grabbing and literally infuse our subject with a more centeredand powerful feeling. The same can be said for objects in our frame that can be positioned at the far left, far right, at the bottom, or at the top. The first example was shot at Wave Hillin the Bronx, where the trees and flowers were a very important aspect of the story.

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The second example covers several different variations of the Eiffel Tower, as seen from my hotel room on a recent trip. Just changing its position within the frame drastically affects its sense of size and importance within the frame as well as for the city.

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As you can see, going by the book isn’t always best when it comes to the arts of filmmaking or photography. Sometimes breaking the rules can bring more to your shoot than simply sticking to what you were taught. However, it is still very important to learn the rules first before you step out of the box. So, the next time you pick up a book on cinematic composition or watch a tutorial about photographic best practices, think about the many ways you can break the rules you are learning in order to enhance your work and make it stand out from the rest.

Happy shooting and rule breaking!


Eduardo Angel is an independent Technology Consultant, Educator, and Emmy Award winning Visual Storyteller based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently teaches at The School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, and mentors the photography program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

He is a co-founder of the idea production company The Digital Distillery, author of popular filmmaking courses on Lynda.com, and regularly shares his thoughts on technology, photography, and cinema on his website eduardoangel.com.

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