Filmmaking Tutorial: Framing Heights & Composition Tips


Welcome to the Lights Film School video tutorial on framing heights. In this video we’ll discuss the importance of properly cropping your subject within a frame. Three common mistakes filmmakers often make when framing a subject are:

1. They leave too much ‘room” above the subject’s head which creates “dead space”
2. They fail to leave enough room above the subject’s head “clipping” the top of their head with the top wall of the frame. While this may be advisable for some close-up shots, this is not advisable for medium or full shots.
3. They “cut off” or “amputate” their subject at the joints of their limbs.

Let’s start by looking at a full shot.

Notice how your entire subject fits nicely within the frame. A full shot is great for providing context as well as orienting your audience geographically within your world. The full shot allows more than one character to be in the frame at the same time and it’s wide enough to allow your characters to use body language to express themselves. Notice how a bit of room is left both below our subject’s feet and above his head.

Next we’ll look at the medium full shot.

This shot is similar to the full shot but instead of cropping below the feet we are making our first cut just above the subject’s knees. Notice there is still room above the subject’s head at the top of the frame.

Next we’ll look at the cowboy shot

Enough space is left below the waist of the subject so if they dropped their hands their wrists would not be cut off with the bottom wall of the shot. This is of course helpful for cowboys who need quick access to the guns in their holsters. In non-western films this shot is equally important for subjects who simply wish to put their arms down to their sides.

Next, we’ll look at a medium close shot

The medium close shot is a great shot when you want to include even less environment and gain more insight into the emotional state of your character. Small emotional nuances may start to register with this image size. That being said, this shot is still wide enough to fit multiple elements within the frame. This shot choice allows you to multitask the character’s emotional state with their body language while at the same time giving you the opportunity to include other characters, props or surroundings.

Next we have a close shot.

This is really one of the first shots when we’ve made the commitment to focus primarily on the emotional world of our character. Notice how in this shot we’re slightly clipping the top of his head with the top wall of the composition? Let us take a moment to fix that by ensuring that the top wall rides just a sliver above our subject’s head… Much better! The actor’s face is the main tool used to convey information when you’re in this close. As we continue to move closer to our actor his body can still communicate expressiveness, but it’s the actors face, and specifically his eyes, which start to become the centrepiece for these shots.

Punching in even closer we have the wide close up

Close up shots are used to gain access into the inner world of your characters. The top part of the frame usually rides just above the top of your character’s head while the bottom of the frame includes just a sliver of the arm as it starts falling off from the shoulder.

Let’s give our character a little bit of lead room which will give him some breathing room and help ensure that our frame has a more dramatic sense of balance… There we go.

Now let’s talk about the full close up.

This shot can be tricky since the framing can quickly become awkward if we loose the subject’s eyes or chin. As a general rule of thumb you want to keep the subject’s eyes in the top 2/3rds of the frame and you don’t want to clip the subject’s chin with the bottom frame of the composition. In this shot we’ve included a little bit of the subject’s shoulders and now we’re allowed to cut the top of his head with the top wall of the composition.

A medium close up.

A medium close up will punch in a little bit closer. Notice we start to loose more of the top of the subject’s head. His chin is also getting dangerously close to the bottom wall of the frame. The benefit to this shot is that it allows you to dig even deeper under the character’s skin to see what is beneath the words they are saying.

It should also be mentioned that budget minded Independent filmmakers often like tighter shots like this because they are cheaper and quicker to light.

Now let’s move into an extreme close up.

An extreme close up goes a step further and we allow the chin to dip below the bottom wall of the composition. In this shot we frame the bottom wall just below the subject’s lips This is as close as we can get into the inner world of a character before moving into macro close ups.

Macro close ups.

Macro close ups allow us to feature a particular part of the body. For example a wrist watch, as we can see in this case. This shot is common when a filmmaker is trying to punctuate a narrative point. For instance a character walking along the side of a desolate highway at night by the themselves might hear something moving in the bushes to the side of the road. The filmmaker in this case may decide to shoot a macro close up of the character’s ear to help “punctuate” the sound.

There are no absolute rules for framing heights. Many filmmakers will simplify framing height terminology by using only three loose terms: Full shot, medium shot and close up. The definition of some of these framing heights vary from set to set. So make sure you talk with your crew members beforehand to make sure you’re all on the same page.


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