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VIDEO ESSAY: What Is Composition?

VIDEO ESSAY: What Is Composition?

The idea of composition has a long history, one that gestures toward the very beginnings of visual art.

At
its most basic and dictionary definition, composition is about the
arrangement of elements, about combination, about parts joining into a
whole.

The
question for composition is not only the selection of elements, but
their arrangment. A major question for painters, for instance, became
that of the point of view of the image, the vantage point of the
spectator.

With
the arrival of photography in the 19th century, the question of point
of view and vantage point became more technical: Where do you place the
camera?

The first movies faced the same question.

At first, cinematic composition assumed the position of the onlooker or the audience member.

As
fictional narrative came to prominence, composition began to interact
with mise-en-scene. What the camera saw was no longer merely a matter of
selection, of where the camera stood. The world did not have to be
accepted as it was. Now, what the camera saw could be constructed, and
its point of view could be large or small, wide or narrow, deep or
shallow. Composition gained a new level of design.

Soon,
directors and cinematographers began to think more like photographers
and painters than like theatre directors limited by a proscenium. They
discovered the freedom to use composition to direct the viewer’s eye and
emotions.

A dominant style developed, but for any dominant style, there are variations, as well as challenges to its dominance.

Composition could even be a tool to overcome other limitations. Darkness, for instance, could be its own compositional element.

The
arrival of color added new considerations to composition and a new tool
for attracting the viewer’s eye and affecting their emotions.

The
shape of the picture matters, too, as anyone who has tried to watch a
widescreen movie on a small, square television screen knows.

With
the rise of computer generated effects, we may seem to be in a new era.
This is true in terms of the freedom to design almost anything
imaginable, but the fundamentals of composition remain mostly the same.
Line, shape, lightness and darkness, color, perspective, balance,
weight, height, depth . . . these remain the words people use to talk
about composition.

The
challenge of composition for narrative cinema remains what it was when
the first story was spliced together from different pieces of film:
where should the viewer look, and at what? What might the arrangement of
elements help the viewer understand or feel?

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is currently a student in the Ph.D. in Literature program at the University of New Hampshire.

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