Rule of thirds in filmmaking

Rule of Thirds in Filmmaking [All You Need To Know]

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In this article, we discuss what the rule of thirds is in filmmaking, why it’s used, and tips on how to create a more compelling shot in your own films.

One of the most fundamental ways to engage an audience is through good cinematography. The rule of thirds is a reliable guide that anyone can follow.

It not only creates balance and symmetry but communicates visual subtext, uses negative space, and structures a conversation between the foreground and background.

What is the Rule of Thirds?

Simply put, the rule of thirds provides an invisible way to guide the viewer’s attention. This compositional rule applies to paintings, photography, and design, but let’s focus on how it applies to filmmaking.

The frame is divided into 9 equal sections using four lines (two horizontal and two vertical). You could also imagine a Tic-Tac-Toe grid overlaying the image.

The human eye is naturally drawn to the four intersecting points of these lines. When composing your shot, the idea is to place your subject or areas of interest on these targets.

Aligning key elements along these lines creates a conversation between the foreground and background. Also to note, most cameras, even cell phones come with this option built in. 👍

Short History of the Rule of Thirds

Previously, this method had been used for centuries by the great artists of the Renaissance period.

However, it wasn’t until 1797, that a painter, engraver, and antiquarian named Thomas Smith wrote it down in his book Remarks on Rural Scenery.

Painters like Caravaggio used this method and positioned his subjects off-center. As a result, it invites the viewer into the scene for a visual conversation.

Caravaggio painting with rule of thirds overlayed
Caravaggio Painting ‘The Cardsharps’ (1595)

He noticed if he positioned the subject dead center, the story would fall flat as there is nowhere for the eye to explore or discover.

Why use the Rule of Thirds?

First off, there are a variety of reasons to use the rule of thirds in filmmaking. The main intention is to immerse the viewer and reflect the story being told.

As mentioned, with the rule of thirds, a viewer’s attention is subtly guided while absorbing layers of information and emotion over time. Here are a few quick reasons to use the rule of thirds.

Visually PleasingSymmetry & BalanceRelationship Dynamics
Utilize Negative SpaceDisplay Character StateEnergize Connection
Reveal InformationDramatic EffectProgress Story

Using this guide creates effective results quickly and consistently. Over time, you’ll naturally overlay this grid onto your shots.

Next, let’s dive into how it can be used. Below are 9 tips on how to use the rule of thirds in filmmaking

How to use the Rule of Thirds in Filmmaking

1. The 2-Shot

First, when framing two subjects along the vertical lines, it’s called a 2-shot. This framing allows the viewer to pay equal attention to both subjects.

Where you position these two subjects says a lot about their relationship. For example, if there is a large space between them then this can represent an emotional distance. However, if they are facing one another then there could be a brewing conflict.

2-Shot diagram
There Will Be Blood (2007)

As a useful experiment, observe everyday conversations between two people so that you grasp a detailed sense of how people communicate. It might be surprising to you how much can be interpreted without hearing the words.

2. Looking Room

The next essential use of the rule of thirds in filmmaking is called looking room. This method defines spatial relationships between people and objects. It gives the impression that the subject is looking at or talking to someone off-screen.

Looking room rule of thirds diagram
Drive (2011)

First, align the subject along one of the vertical lines where they occupy 1/3 of the space. Then leave 2/3 of the negative space for looking room.

However, if you fail to provide looking room, your subject will appear to be boxed in. There’s a specific name for his type of framing, and it’s called short-siding.

3. Short-Siding

You might be asking, what is short-siding? Well, this is done simply by removing the characters looking room. This technique produces a feeling of unease, apprehension, or conflict.

Short-siding diagram
Arrival (2016)

When the subject faces the outer edge of the frame, the audience is literally blindsided.

This framing can also indicate a situation that the character is at odds with, but can’t quite seem to shake. In addition, this can draw the viewer’s attention to the negative space behind the character as if there’s something lurking behind them.

It’s important to mention that if overused this technique can come off as a gimmick. It’s more effective if used sparingly.

4. Leading Room

Next on the list of compositional rules is leading room. This framing technique provides a sense of anticipation by leaving 2/3 of negative space in front of a moving object.

For example, if you’re shooting a car racing to the left, place it in the right vertical line. As a result, the frame is infused with energy, while evoking a natural sense of movement.

Leading room rule of thirds diagram
Drive (2011)

When you grasp this concept you can explore more complex ways to use these compositional rules in filmmaking. For instance, you can land on different intersection points all within one shot. This is very common in tracking shots and action scenes.

5. Eyeline

As we all know, seeing the eyes of a character is the strongest way to open an emotional connection.

When framing the eyes using the rule of thirds, you should almost always place the eyeline of the subject along the top horizontal line. 

Eyeline diagram
Saving Private Ryan (1998)

When cutting between a wide, medium, or close-up, eyes on the top horizontal line, produces a seamless edit. Otherwise, the viewer has to dart their eyes around the screen searching for where to look. Try to avoid this whenever possible as it’s confusing and exhausting.

Secondly, consider the angle of your subject when framing as angles can also be thought of as perspective. 

Downward AngleEye-LevelUpward Angle
Weakness or vulnerabilityNeutrality, one and the same, empathy toward the characterEmpowerment or heroism

6. Headroom

Another framing technique to think about is headroom. Headroom is the negative space between your subject’s head and the top of the frame.

Lots of headroom can be used to reflect the mood of the story, such as the main character’s internal state, and their place in the world. For example, they could be feelings of isolation or loneliness.

However, if there’s too much space, it can make your subject seem small and awkwardly placed.

Headroom rule of thirds diagram
Ida (2013)

Extra headroom is also a clever way to create a state of anxiety in the viewer. Although the overall image looks perfectly normal but something is off. Something big and powerful thing is looming.

In this rule of thirds film example Ida (2013), the framing suggests that a larger force is making important decisions about her life.

7. Landscapes

Lastly, we have landscapes. This is a great use of the horizontal lines. Depending on what speaks to the visual subtext or compliments the story, these lines bring satisfaction and balance to the shot.

Landscapes diagram
Arrival (2016)

Depending on the area of interest, you can use the upper or lower horizontal line. This alignment coupled with your vertical subjects gives a feeling that’s hard to put your finger on.

8. Zoom Out

When applying compositional rules, it’s great to pay attention to detail but it’s also a good idea to zoom out. By doing so, you can observe how the shot sequence harmonizes with the bigger picture. The sooner you recognize glitches, the better.

Furthermore, utilize eye-trace and match-framing whenever possible. This improves the chances of landing emotional beats that drive your story home.

Also, with dialogue scenes make sure you match the eyeline of your subjects in your reverse shots. If it’s not consistent, the viewer gets exhausted from having to puzzle together your images.

9. Break the Rule of Thirds

Lastly, it sounds funny but always try to break the rule of thirds. These are just guides and are not to be used strictly. At the end of the day, it comes down to personal taste.

When the time is right, consider using compositional disruptions. A film is a rollercoaster ride, but don’t get stuck in a loop. A sudden variation in framing style has a strong effect.

Final Words

To sum up, the rule of thirds in filmmaking is just one of the many compositional rules to choose from. You have many others like the golden ratios, leading lines, depth of field, symmetry, and deep space. They all serve a purpose and can be used in combination with each other.

Also, next time you’re watching a film, look closely at the shots to see what works and try to incorporate them into your own projects.

Author
Marcus VanWormer
Marcus VanWormer
Marcus is a freelance director, cinematographer, and video editor based in Brooklyn. He has a diverse background in film production working with companies like ABC, CBS, Jeep, Harley Davidson, and Levi's. His passion is storytelling. Follow him on Linkedin.
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