How Tarantino, The Coen Brothers, And Other Filmmakers Use Composition To Tell Stories

Composition does more than just make a movie beautiful to look at, it also plays with expectations, sets up symbolism, and evokes themes.

Awards season is a perfect time to take a more in-depth look at movies. After hearing about how many nominations The Revenant racked up, it’s only natural to closely examine the film and decipher its eminent Oscar-worthiness. Now that many of us are in active viewing mode, as opposed to background-watching You’ve Got Mail while catching up with parents, a new video explains an under-praised element of filmmaking: composition.


The film-obsessed YouTubers at Channel Criswell recently put together a massive exegesis called “Composition In Storytelling.” Over the course of 15 minutes, a narrator points out exactly why the arrangement of an image is a key element of visual storytelling, and one that is as as technical as it is artistic. The video goes over the history of composition in film, how it was more or less an afterthought until directors figured out they could move the camera around, and later dives deep into the technical aspects.

Lawrence of Arabia, 1962

Channel Criswell expects that viewers will already be up to snuff on concepts like the Rule of Thirds (the idea that an image should be thought of as divided into nine equal parts), the Golden Ratio (a complex geometrical way of filling the frame), and Triangular Composition (a way to draw our eyes to a subject within a subtle triangle shape), so the video briefly demonstrates them with scenes from Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood without explaining. However, there are plenty more lessons throughout on how staging, depth, and balance can be mathematically sound, yet also expressive.

The Graduate, 1967

Beyond the technical side, the video also shows examples of how composition can evoke themes and story elements. For instance, Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock, is always feeling like he’s under pressure, and so director Mike Nichols frequently frames the character as stuck between other people, objects, and body parts.

Citizen Kane, 1941

“Composition In Storytelling” should give you a deeper appreciation for the thought that goes into what’s onscreen in all the movies you cram in until the Oscars presentation on February 28th. If nothing else, watching it will at least make you understand some of the more subtle reasons why film lovers love Citizen Kane so much.

[via The Awesomer]