Shot design basics

Applying graphic design wisdom into cinematic compositions.

Back when I was a designer I came upon one of the best design books I’ve ever read. It was titled: The non-designers design book.

By then I had read a decent amount of design books but the simplicity and to-the-point focus of this one made it stand out in my memory to this day. It contained four rules to improve any design:

Contrast — Repetition — Alignment — Proximity

Summarised with a catchy and cheeky acronym: CRAP.

The idea behind contrast is to avoid elements on the page that are merely similar. If the elements (type, color, size, line thickness, shape, space, etc.) are not the same, then make them very different. Contrast is often the most important visual attraction on a page — it’s what makes a reader look at the page in the first place.
Repeat visual elements of the design throughout the piece. You can repeat colours, shapes, textures, spatial relation-ships, line thicknesses, fonts, sizes, graphic concepts, etc. This develops the organisation and strengthens the unity.
Nothing should be placed on the page arbitrarily. Every element should have some visual connection with another element on the page. This creates a clean, sophisticated, fresh look.
Items relating to each other should be grouped close together. When several items are in close proximity to each other, they become one visual unit rather than several separate units. This helps organise information, reduces clutter, and gives the reader a clear structure.

It doesn’t take much to see this fully applies to a good cinematic composition or any form of visual art for that matter. Contrast is an universal device to generate interest. Repetition of elements to create rhythm is present from poetry to music. Alignment — while used in a different way in graphic design — forms the basic layout of any composition. Proximity not only helps to read the composition but to state ideas: elements that are close together are identified as being related.

In “Red beard” Kurosawa masterfully uses repetition, alignment and proximity to create an arrow-head shape out of the concerned patients, leading the eye. The bold use of contrast helps separate the patients from the dying man.
Again, Kurosawa creates a group from the old men by placing them together so they represent a single idea. The contrasting textures of the clothing and the physical distance make the protagonist stand out.

Some directors will place more emphasis on some aspects of the composition rules than others, making their style unique and recognisable.

Wes Anderson is famous for his symmetric, flat and painterly compositions. In these examples there’s a thoughtful use of motifs (repetition), contrasts in shape and colour and clear alignment and proximity so the shots read easily.

These basic rules leave out other important aspects of pictorial composition like perspective, convergence lines, rule of thirds/golden rule, etc.

And that’s without taking into account that cinema is a moving, morphing art. There can be so much more involved in a great shot, but unless the director/DP was purposefully (or not) aiming for an unpleasant composition, it will be difficult to find any amazing shot that doesn’t follow the principles of contrast, repetition, alignment and proximity.

Beautifully composed shot from “The master”.