Friday, April 09, 2010

What's Your (Tri)Angle?

I've been watching a lot of video lately - a lot.  (Can you hear the absolute sorrow in my voice as I say that? )  I'm watching this video for a consulting gig I have with a client to maximize the entertainment value of their video assets for the web.  That means helping their media department develop their visual communication skills so that long streams of technical dialogue and jargon don't come off as boring.

Remember -- a picture is worth a thousand words. 

I've also been looking at a lot of indie video (mostly horror and scifi) that thinks it's the bee's knee's, and is trying to get distribution (a whole other Oprah)  but is actually framed  so poorly in the camera you want to click YouTube off after five seconds.

Quite frankly, it's pissing me off. 

We live in an era where highly sophisticated technical devices and software are available to the average consumer for a very reasonable price. We also live in an era where we have a tremendous visual library at our fingertips ready for us to draw upon (pun intended).

Never before have we handed over the keys (equipment and know-how)  to creating professionally-looking film and video to so many folks... and they don't know what to do with it.  
You've seen the videos I'm talking about - movies made by folks who purport to be horror fans, yet when they shoot a scene it's framed so... blandly, that the horror and fear they are trying to invoke in the viewer just isn't there.  The monster is walking around in a medium shot fully lit, instead of skulking in the shadows looking up and readying to strike its prey.  It's not funny.  It's not an intended effect.

It's just really bad. 

And no, I'm not talking about kid's videos either. I'm talking about adults who have purchased very good equipment and don't know how to use it to communicate visually... at all.  The best analogy would be a radio announcer who's calling the baseball game and saying everything...

in. that. same. monotone. voice. that. never. rises. nor. falls. 

It's boring.  Boiling water is more exciting to watch.

And then there's the indie film fucks ... folks out there who are always saying that they want to capture a real moment.  I'm sorry but that's just pretentious whanker bullshit. Somebody tells you that, your alarm bells better go off because this sis someone who doesn't know what film is...

(To borrow from Hitchcock)  Film is reality with all of the boring bits cut out.   The audience doesn't need "reality" - they need and require entertainment.  They need visual storytelling that keeps them interested even when there are only two people in the room. 

So how do you do that?  How do you frame your camera so you have something visually interesting going on even when the scene is just two people talking in a room?

I'm going to show you a quick technique that works every time.  It's easy to learn, subtle (or not) and can help you when you're stuck in staging a scene.  It shouts "This is important" to the viewer even when the action within the shot is static.  What I'm talking about is called FINDING THE TRIANGLE.

Below are some examples of commercial illustration by Mort Kunstler. It's all pulpy and all 'designed' to be exciting, but the same technique Kunstler uses to design these pictures is the same technique you can use when framing your shots.  It works.  

Note how the angle of the figures in the foreground lead the eye toward the smoking wreck of a plane in the background.  You can see triangle (actually several triangles - you can also follow the wing from the upper left down to the soldier with arm outstretched) that I've marked out here in red.

Note the angle and how it gives the scene an air of urgency and importance.  Now imagine these ladies coming directly at you as they drag the wounded pilot away.

That would be pretty damn exciting.

But how does it work for long shots where the action is shot from further away with a longer lens?  Take a look:

We're pretty far away from the action - the machine gunner here - but our eye is drawn directly to the action because we are framed right within the triangle.

He could be a butler walking in to serve food and our eye would pick him out first because of the visual storytelling  at work here.

Triangular composition = more entertainment value within the frame.  In this case we instinctively know this guy is important.

It also (especially) works for more intimate scenes:

We have three triangle going on here:

The Yellow triangle of the woman (and the fact she's in the foreground) tells us she's important.

The (Red/blue) triangle formed by her leg up against the wall (Hello, Mrs. Robinson!) points us to the man in the background... He HAS to be important too...

And the angle he's sitting at  (Blue) suggests the money on the table is important...

Now imagine how boring this would be if we were shooting this scene on set and moved the camera right, to frame this scene with the actress on the left side of the frame and the guy on the right.

No triangle.  You'd be left with a rectangular (static) composition.  A visual story that had little to tell and all of it monotone.

Here's another to get your eyes accustomed to looking for the triangle - even in the most unlikely of compositions:

Even within the box-like confines of the door frame (or is this a window frame?) you can see a triangular dynamic going on - his gun upraised, leading the eye to the lovely lady in the lingerie in the background.

Or our hero in the foreground who's framed so that he has his own triangle concentrating on his face.

Or the edge of the table providing the base of a triangle focusing on the lady's beautiful legs thrashing in the background (part of that larger triangle from earlier but framed in such a way so that you could go to a closeup of her face or her legs thrashing and cut back to this shot with a minimum of fuss (camera movement, lighting adjust) ...

and still have a shot that's visually a winner.

And that's what your audience wants - a winner.  Whenever they pick up your comic or your movie or your web video - they're rooting for you to be a winner. A visual storyteller who will entertain them.

Your job is to find the right angle of approach.

So tell me how many triangles there are in this composition:

Courtesy: Accidental Mysteries


Paul Bishop said...

Excellent post. I've been pushing triangles down people's throats until they are sick of them, but they work -- and I'm not just talking about film. I use triangles in story plotting, and I use a triangle offense and defense when coaching soccer. I even use a triangle approach to crime investigations when they run to a large scale.

Triangles are powerful tools and we are still discovering ways to use them.

Jon Molly said...

My response is here:

An excerpt: I wanted to point out that the lines of action here are very carefully constructed. Everything in the picture is leaning to the right. Which makes sense. The Army prison camp is on the left, and our escapees are headed away from that camp. So all of the lines of action are directing the eye from left to right. Note that even the people who are looking to the left have something to compensate and lead your eye back to the right. The gal in the jeep as a rifle that shows up in high contrast against the spotlight. Everything but the face of the the gal in the red skirt leads the eye to the left. In short, everything in this picture is constructed to evoke the impression of movement in one particular direction - away from the prison.

Harlan said...

I love it when you get pissed off. It means I can learn something.

Phantom of Pulp said...

Fuckin great post, Bill.

You make such a good point about there being so many people with all the right equipment and so few with a damn clue.

Jerry A said...

Triangles. Wow. I hope you are right, but I think some filmakers focus too much on their art than the actual entertainment of the audience.

I have also learned that you can find anything in any picture once you are looking for it. You can find circles, squares and even pentagons if you really look. Just because the scene doesn't have triangles does not necessarily mean it doesn't work.

Or am I wrong?

Cunningham said...

Triangles tend to elicit more excitement. Circles and squares are flat and lessen the 'visual tension.'

If you're making an action movie or thriller you want as much tension as is possible. Crank it so the audience is somehow always wary...

The best example is the dutch angle in the first picture of the girls and the aircraft. By a simple shift of the camera a scene becomes much more intense. That shift creates a "triangle."

And it was really dead simple to do.

If it doesn't have a triangle it's probably going to have to work extra hard to work for the audience and elicit the response. But film is a VISUAL medium - why not put that to work for you?

The Production Company Collective said...

awesome post thanks for explaining in a great visual way