Monday, September 26, 2011


Every composition has a set of defined elements from depth of field to subjects to the very contrast of the details in a piece. There is however, no set scale for any piece.

The challenge of any creative piece is utilizing all of the elements to form a connection with the audience, to give that emotional bond that keeps their attention, makes them want to understand. In a narrative this can mean perspective in the piece or scale of the subject matter (Will it affect the world? or Just a few lives?) or this can mean the very length of a piece.

Building a connection between the audience and the composition can be achieved through a variety of methods but the strongest is creating the 1:1 connection, a Macro-connection.

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In photography, establishing a 1:1 connection between the audience and the subject is achieved by focusing intently on the minute details of a larger subject. The Macro-composition is created by selecting the details of a larger composition that best represent the larger piece and then making them larger than life, a direct 1:1 ratio.

Eg. The larger composition is a broken down and forgotten home, now overgrown with trees and is slowly collapsing as autumn sets in with the early morning sun. The Macro would be a close up shot of the neglected flowerpots along the fading stucco wall with a few fall leaves resting on the pots with a hint of the early morning sun.

Creating a Macro-composition in a narrative can be one of the more difficult things for a writer to accomplish. It is often easier to express the larger implications of a narrative by breaking the 1:1 connection. In a third-person perspective it is common for global effects to be viewed by jumping to an outside narrative character that can witness these. This breaks the 1:1 ratio and the essential 'spell' that the audience is under however, and the last thing any writer wants to do is break their audience-composition connection.

There are a number of ways to express a larger composition within the details of a given scene or event without breaking the Macro-compostion. To borrow the phrase from Rohe ~ "The Devil is in the Details."

Controlling the focal point of a composition and through a clever use of details it is possible to express the larger composition without breaking the Macro 1:1 connection. These practices are easily attributable to Macro-Compositions, telling an entire narrative in a few precisely chosen details and words.

One of the strongest practices comes from utilizing video as art. The Macro-Challenge consists of creating 4 video clips under 15 seconds each, the catch is they need to be 'Non-Symbolic' but convey an emotion. In short, it means to convey love the cinematographer can not use hearts, flowers the color red, people etc. Through this practice the cinematographer learns to take explicit care in developing every 15 seconds.

In a narrative, the desire to focus on larger details can inhibit the audience-composition connection or even break that connection if the wrong focal points and details are selected. The solution is to utilize the Macro-Challenge of cinematographers. Many of these challenges are currently floating around including Twitter-Fiction and Flash-Fiction among the many other variants. Taking specific care to craft a narrative in a sentence or two encourages a conscious selection of words and details. As the short sentence is perfected then that same approach can be brought to the paragraph, the chapter, the novel and ultimately the series.

Every composition, every narrative has a Macro-perspective embedded in the piece. Utilizing precise details can convey a larger composition without ever breaking the 1:1 connection with the audience.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

High Dynamic Composition

In any composition there are a variety of factors that can either detract or enhance the piece. While the depth of field and the subjects of the composition are considered 'fixed' or 'unchangeable,' many elements ranging from contrast to saturation to detail can be altered to enhance the piece.

One of the most important elements of a composition is establishing the appropriate contrast in the piece, contrast of light and shadow, contrast of subjects and contrast of elemental details.

Often, those in the visual arts use a technique called 'bracketing' or 'stepping' to find the right balance in a composition. The technique consists of increasing and decreasing the amount of exposure, or light in the shot to establish different details and find the best result.

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Abstracting this technique to narratives, it is not too dissimilar from establishing revisions to a draft. The draft creates the basic composition with an established depth of field and subjects but does not have the strength of an emotionally draining 'dark' composition or the emotional highs of the 'light' composition. Each step towards the 'darker' or 'lighter' compositions can shift the entirety of the piece but at the same time, finding the right composition can be extremely difficult. Most take each piece of the composition and adjust it individually to suite the piece. This can result in a lengthy and painful process to attain the desired composition.

A very beneficial technique that supplements 'bracketing' in the visual arts is known as High Dynamic Range imaging. This technique involves taking the variations of a composition, the lightest highlights to the darkest shadows and merging them into a solitary composition that will have exceptional contrast and all of the positive elements from each variation.

While revisions can be painful, the concept of taking a single draft and revising it into separate directions, applying a lighter tone so the high points are the brightest, then taking another variation and revising with the intent of taking the dark moments and making them the darkest they can be is very beneficial. The end result of creating separate, bracketed, revised compositions allows the creator to merge all of the strongest elements into one HDR Composition.

How do you revise your work? Do you use an HDR technique or do you adjust the individual elements of the original piece?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Composing Composition

Focal Points, setting, details, composition…

In the visual arts there are a variety of simplistic guides that can help an artist create a strong composition and with enough fore-thought it is actually possible to push the limits of a piece to something that the masses will regard highly.

One of the basic guides for crafting a strong composition in the visual arts that can also be reflected in a compelling narrative is the Rule of Thirds. In the 1783 Sir Joshua Reynolds describes this in unquantified terms as 'the balance of dark and light. This has since been refined as conceptualizing an image by dividing the image into nine equal parts with two horizontal and two vertical lines. The points at which these lines meet are considered the 'power points.'

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Two primary concepts that can be abstracted from this Rule of Thirds are the ideas of 'balancing light and dark' and utilizing 'power points' at equivocal lengths.

In a narrative the balance of light and dark is often more complex than visualizing shadows and highlights. The overall tone of a piece can determine the 'exposure' for the piece but the shadows or 'darkest moments' in the piece will need to be of significant contrast to add sufficient dimension to the work. Eg. If the narrative is filled with deaths then the darkest moments will all appear the same level. The same is true for the highlights of a piece. If all the high points or highlights of a piece are on equal ground then there will be no significant contrast between one moment and the next. When all of the highlights and shadows of a piece are equal then the composition will be a dull neutral gray.

While finding the right balance of light and dark is integral to providing contrast in a piece, it is also necessary to define the 'power points' of the composition. These are the most visually striking focal points or in a narrative, the most thrilling moments of the piece. Together with balancing light and dark, these power points will be the contrasting subjects of the piece. Each of the four selected points and the 'strike line' leading to that point are inherently where the most emphasis is derived for a piece. These highest highlights to the lowest shadows provide the depth and contrast necessary to drive interest in a piece, when the appropriate focal points are selected for the piece at precise intervals the overall composition becomes an interesting piece.

To further enhance the the composition it is necessary to choose the appropriate setting to provide the requisite contrast between the focal points and the subject(s) of the composition. It is also necessary to choose the appropriate depth of field for each composition to emphasize details and enhance the overall composition.

Whether creating a visually striking image or an emotionally striking narrative, the abstracted principles remain the same; contrast and balance for the light and dark of the piece as well as choosing the appropriate subject(s) for the 'power points' and strike lines that lead up to these points.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Assigning Depth of Field

As the artist conceptualizes their work, they designate a specific subject or focus for that work. There is a particular message that they wish to convey with their subject and as a result, a given selection of details that must be emphasized in their work.

In a particular work, the artist will need to select the appropriate 'focus' for the piece. This focus will reveal a subject in greater detail while de-emphasizing the surrounding subjects to provide a greater contrast that allows the subject to stand out. This technique of emphasizing a particular subject with a selected focus is commonly described as a depth of field in photography and cinematography. In a visual sense it is the distance between the nearest and farthest objects in frame that appear 'acceptably sharp.'

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Much like the visual arts, it is just as necessary and integral to select the appropriate focal length, the depth of field for a piece. Three primary means of focusing on a subject across mediums include the deep focus, shallow focus and a selective focus.

A deep focus or large depth of field is common in cinematography and is also quite common in fantasy novels as well. In a deep focus shot the foreground, middle-ground and background are all in focus. This emphasizes moderate detail across all planes of the frame and in narrative terms this is revealed as detailed descriptions of the world, characters, atmosphere even political machinations. While there will be given subjects within the frame they will only exhibit an equal level of detail as that of the rest of the frame regardless of positional emphasis(if they're the main characters, subjects, etc.).

Ex: The rusted mechanical horse slowed its piston-timed pace until it brought the carriage to a stop before us. It was clear that the Algenie were being selective about transit updates in this section of the city. "Select your destination sir." The robotic voice echoed.

The counterpoint, a shallow focus or small depth of field is often more effective. In a shallow focus the subject is emphasized while de-emphasizing the foreground and background. This emphasizes great detail on a single plane and significantly less detail on surrounding subjects and in a narrative sense, is common in most contemporary novels. The subjects in frame will exhibit varying levels of detail depending on their positional emphasis.

Ex: The cab swerved across traffic in response to my hail drawing to a stop in front of us. I jumped in and tried not to recoil at the stench. The cabbie looked over his shoulder, "Where to boss?"

A balance between the shallow focus and deep focus is the selective focus, a large depth of field with selected emphasis. This focal method allows for a larger detailed frame than a shallow focus but also provides more detail than a deep focus on selected subjects in the frame. In a narrative sense this is more uncommon but also generates an air of inconsistency.

Ex: The battered yellow cab swerved around the sanitation truck as the workers hopped off. The car dodged a pristine Mercedes and slid to a stop in front of me almost taking my toes off the curb. I shook my head as horns sounded in the distance and I pulled the door handle. The scent of sweat and decay greeted me as I slid in on the cheap vinyl seat. "Where to boss?" The large cabbie asked with a thick Brooklyn accent.

Every creative piece has a selected depth of field, a focal length that establishes what in frame is emphasized and de-emphasized. Once a focal length is selected, it is abundantly apparent to the audience when that focal length changes. If there is a shift within the focus it often weakens the piece and often distinguishes a professional piece from the amateur. Do you know what focal length you're using?

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