Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Importance of Composition

Composition is a crucial component of visual media. It's what is used in paintings, photos, film and I guess even professions such as architecture to create something visually pleasing to the viewer. Often these techniques will go unnoticed, but will still have an underlying effect on the viewer that makes them enjoy the scene presented to them regardless. 
Composition is essentially arranging various elements of a scene into a pleasing manner, or one that portrays the necessary effect you want. Such elements include line, shape, colour, texture, form, value and space. Arranging these elements properly is crucial for an artist to know, and such knowledge can be transferred into 3D work. Although when simply making game assets the compositional element is lost, the development of how that object came to be what it is isn't, and where it will sit in the final scene or level will be based on how your concept art conveyed it. Similarly, designing levels will also use the common principles of composition; how the player moves through the level, what their focus is drawn to and what works subtly etc.
Composition is one of the most crucial features of a painting alongside the technical skill that makes the painting work. Without it, you just have a scene that could be a still from a movie taken at the wrong time, and it just doesn't work. Likewise, using it wrong could portray a completely different effect to the one intended; as demonstrated in Michael Freeman's 'The Photographer's Eye': a photo using a low horizon line and shot landscape of a solitary boat at sea gives a sense of scale and solitude for the boat. Taking the same photograph portrait with a high horizon line distorts the effect of the image, and we're left with something that at first glance doesn't really look quite right; a boat clearly at sea, yes, but we don't know how far out it is or if there are more boats just out of frame.
I'm going to try use some terminology from this book and personal knowledge gained from lectures and such to annotate the following images, so forgive me if some terms aren't quite right, but hopefully I get across effectively what I know about the importance of composition.

While this render of Queen Myrrah from Gears of War 3 doesn't seem to have much going on, there are certain elements that help further identify the character beyond what is initially seen. Firstly, despite being female, who - pardon me if this sounds sexist - are more often seen as sex symbols rather than symbols of power and dominance, she still exerts a sense of fear and threat. Her restricted colour palette and backlit figure helps increase her threat level, as does her stance. The shape of her armour pieces are also large and clunky, again contradicting her curvy female figure, thus altering her silhouette from a less intimidating cliche sexy-female-game-character pose to one that evokes much more power and threat.

As a game artist it's crucial to be able to convey certain features or characteristics or feelings in a painting to the viewer so they know what should be going on in that scene. In these two pieces of concept art for Halo 3: ODST, it shows what is occurring at night and what occurred earlier that day. This is a crucial part of the storytelling for the game, so it was important for the artists of the game to convey those two different feelings - lonely and lost in a mostly abandoned and wrecked city, and also pinned down and against the odds, but with support from your fellow marines to help you push  forward and conquer the enemies. These two feelings are helped by various compositional elements such as the colour palette in the top image and the framing of infantry in the bottom.

I apologise here as I am now going to use a barrage of stills mostly from the opening of my favourite film, 'Paris, Texas' to demonstrate brilliant use of composition. After seeing the opening again in my lecture on Thursday I was reminded of how incredible it is, how Wim Wender's used the shots the way that he did. As my lecturer mentioned, you notice new things and techniques on subsequent watches that you may not have noticed the first time round, and indeed I did on Thursday. There will be some spoilers, so if you haven't seen this stunning film yet, please go do so now.

In these two shots from the very opening of the film, we see the protagonist wander into centre frame, in the middle of this barren desert. To exacerbate this sense of isolation, a very high horizon line is used to give a sense of scale and show the viewer straightaway how lost this man really is, which again works as a reflection of the protagonist himself. He looks up at an eagle staring down on him, and a low horizon line is used to help increase the height this bird is at, and show how easy it can escape from the situation that this man is stuck in. The shot is slightly off centre to accompany the fact that nature is very random and chaotic.

In this shot very clever framing is used to make it appear as though the protagonists brother is more successful than he actually is, although at the time the viewer doesn't know this, but they know something isn't quite right with the shot.

And indeed in the next shot, it's revealed he works at a billboard company, and isn't in the scene we originally thought him to be. This technique admittedly isn't entirely useful for an artist, but it may come in handy for an illustrator.

This shot slightly follows the rule of thirds, and the 3:2 ratio (?) compliments the scene nicely. The use of colour is exceptionally well executed as well - the unnatural green lighting contrasts nicely with the late evening-lit sky. Couple this with the location of a gas station and the character's cup of coffee and tired appearance, and we are presented with a shot that works so well on many levels at conveying the mood expressed by the character.

Later, when the two brothers finally meet, Walt is shown driving off to the right into the horizon, and the next shot shows Travis coming from the left, and Walt follows shortly from the right and they literally cross paths. In the above shot, the camera is framed nicely by the man-made mailboxes that look out to a large mesa, allowing the viewer to gauge a sense of scale, helped by the vanishing horizon line. This makes the next shot appear very lucky; how these two characters crossed paths in this vastly empty land.
The below shot is also a great example of repeating shapes and how they are aesthetically pleasing. Throwing too many unique shapes at the viewer can be jarring, and by using repeating shapes, in this case lots of vertical and crossing lines, it can help ease the viewer into the scene more.

'What's out there Trav? There's nothing out there.'

These two shots pretty much speak for themselves - a textbook example of a vanishing point and the horizon line, probably in their most cliche form. But what is key is how it's used within the scope of the film. We see the train tracks from two different perspectives, but both trailing off into nothing (at least the viewer sees nothing). The accompanies Walt's rather depressing metaphor of life, Travis came from nowhere, and in his current state, he's going nowhere.

Another gorgeous shot that reflects Walt's feeling of helplessness in the film - at this point he is with his brother, but Travis refuses to speak, and is generally being a bother to Walt more than a relief. the pathetic fallacy of the weather correlates with Walt's feelings, as does the blurred lighting and framing. The use of contre-jour could also symbolise that there's light at the end of the tunnel.

The slightly canted angle and low light used here symbolise how Travis is mentally broken at this point; he's still getting used to being back in contact with people again after 4 years of isolation, and he can't sleep, so he cleans clothes and shoes to pass the time.

Another nice use of the golden ratio, with a slight low angle used to bring out the shape of the abandoned truck a little more. The use of negative space here is well done as the sky is clear with a near perfect gradient, which looks very effective in this scene, as opposed to if the space would be cluttered with clouds.

A subtle shot that I only just picked up on, but it effectively shows how you can convey feelings with even the most mundane of things, even the feet. by themselves. From left to right, Hunter's feet are tapping away, he's only a child and is very hyper and more active than anyone else. Anne is clearly nervous at Travis meeting Hunter again, shown by her rubbing her leg. Travis, still rather uncomfortable at the thought of being back in civilization is sitting rather awkward and upright, and Walt actually seems rather calm and at ease - he's probably just relieved to be back home.

Skipping straight to the end of the film for two last shots (I could annotate this film shot by shot if I wanted to, but that's not in the best interest of my time), here we see Travis confronting his wife properly for the first time in 4 years, and probably my favourite scene in all of cinema. The way it is composed is truly incredible - the slow editing and drawn out scenes really help improve the emotions that Jane is going through, and the way her character deteriorates through the scene is fantastic. What I love about the above shot, and the scene, is how purposeful Travis composes himself. He knows what he's about to do, and conducts himself appropriately. The choice of him facing away from her, even though the glass is one-way, is one of true caliber, which demonstrates to the viewer just how much Travis cares for this woman, so much so he literally doesn't want to see her breaking down. The dark lighting on his face also mimics his dark past that he is revealing to her, and her innocence is shown by the warm lighting.
The below shot again speaks for itself - expertly constructed - Travis literally seeing himself in Jane; he is ashamed of what he's done to her and this room works almost like a confession booth to him. The differential focus also shifts our focus to the reflection but it doesn't shove it in our face like modern cinema probably would.

I'll finish with some stills from the outro to Parkway Drive's 'Home is for the Heartless' DVD of their world tour, featuring some gorgeous shots demonstrating some great uses contre-jour, silhouettes & shape, framing & colour.

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