Video Basics 4

Video Basics 4 – Composition and Sequence


A well-composed image is an effective image. The viewer is not confused by distracting elements. The eye is drawn to what’s important in the shot. There are plenty of websites that explain lots of principles of composition but we’ll look at just a couple of the essentials.

Principle #1 is simplicity. Include only what is necessary to understand the idea being presented.
simplicity image
If I’m showing the technique for hand-cutting a dovetail joint on the end of a board, then I want the saw teeth and the end of the board to fill the frame. In this shot I don’t need to see how the board is clamped to the workbench, or what kind of safety glasses the woodworker is wearing. Those are other shots. And it’s generally better to move the camera in close, than to stand way back and zoom in. Think through what is most important to see at each moment of your video and break up the series of shots so you can communicate clearly.

Principle #2 is the rule of thirds (more of a guideline than a rule).
rule of thirds image
Imagine your viewfinder split into 3 columns and 3 rows. Try to place your subject at one of the intersections. For people, that usually means putting their face at the top left or top right intersection. If they’re looking at something, give them more room in front of them than behind them. What they’re looking at serves to balance the screen. Putting the subject dead centre is generally avoided, unless you’re trying to make a point about something being symmetrical.


There are also some basic principles about putting a sequence of shots together in the editing process (or even in the camera each time you start and stop recording).
sequence image
Most scenes start with some kind of establishing shot. Often this is a wide shot that lets the viewer know where we are. Sometimes it’s an extreme closeup that teases the viewer with an interesting detail about the upcoming topic. If there’s a person talking, the next shot is usually a medium shot of that person (often from the waist up, including any tools or equipment they will be using). Then we usually go to a close-up of the head and shoulders, or a close-up of what they’re doing or some other important detail. The scene progresses between medium and close-up shots, alternating between what they’re telling us and what they’re doing. With advanced planning and a slow steady hand on the zoom, you can sometimes accomplish this is one continuous take. But it’s much more flexible to break it up into a series of shots. Plan each shot to show what’s most important to the viewer at that point. And plan ways to avoid the dreaded jump-cut. (These techniques are also very useful when you’re trying to do one long continuous take, but you make a mistake and have to stop and pick up again where you left off).

Avoiding jump-cuts

A jump cut occurs when the background remains the same, but the subject instantaneously jumps from one position in the frame to another position in the frame.
jump-cut image
Unless it’s intentional, this is usually frowned upon. The easiest fix is to change the background – which means moving the camera. Try picking up the camera and moving it 30 degrees to the right or left. Go a little wider, or a little tighter than you were in the previous shot. Have the talent repeat the last few words of the previous sentence looking to where the camera was, then turn to where the camera now is, and carry on with the next sentence. In editing, you can trim the end of the first shot and the start of the second shot to make it look seamless. Another way to avoid jump cuts is to start on a close-up detail as the shot starts, then pull back to the framing you want. A third very useful technique (especially when you’re changing locations) is to have the talent walk into the shot. Suppose you finish the previous shot with the talent talking to the camera. Frame up the new shot without the talent in the shot, then as they start talking, they walk into frame.

Exercise: Keeping the principles of good composition in mind, record a short multi-shot sequence where

  • The talent flubs a line and you have to pick up from a new angle
  • The camera starts on a close-up and pulls out
  • The talent walks into the shot (they start talking out of frame)