Framing – Unbalanced and Negative

As we all know, cinematography has come a long way from the days of just “capturing” a performance from a wide shot. It conveys a meaning in its own right. It tells the story in its own ways: framing, lenses, coloring, lighting, movement, etc. But, let’s talk about framing. Even in framing there is lots of theory: thirds, golden mean, center framing, and on and on. Now I want to talk about two things, image balance and the charge of the image.

First, defining the terms: Image balance. A balanced image has two equal “forces” on both sides of the frame. A force can be people or objects. But, force is also relative to story as well. An object of importance can balance a person in the other half of the frame if it is important. Generally, a balanced image consists of two people, like the image below.

This image is balanced by the people in the frames. It is not perfectly balanced, but it is on the balanced side of the scale. This is a standard framing and is a comfortable image to look at. An unbalanced image is below

This image is less comfortable to look at than the balanced image because we assume that one of our balancing “force” is off frame. In the above image we infer that he is looking at something but it is not in frame and there is nothing to balance this force. Using the same images, you will notice that the eyelines are drawn on the frame. in both shots, the eyelines cross the center of the image. This is standard and I am calling this a “positive” image. Obviously, when the main force is “projecting” away from the center frame, it creates a “negative” image. Subjects in a frame can project, generally if they are alive and have a “temporal kinetic” energy. For example, eyes. Eyes generally lead to what the person is thinking or showing where they will go next. The temporal aspect is because the energy is diverted over time. Even a statue of a person within a frame has less kinetic temporal energy than a human, if it has any at all. This is critical. Positive and negative images are not related to balanced and unbalanced. Both affect the levels of comfort the viewer has in an image. Specifically, comfortable or uncomfortable (and this is a spectrum, not just one or the other). But, positive and negative have another effect as well: assumption vs. anticipation. In the frame above we assume that we will see what , Gabe, the protagonist is looking at. Again, this is a positive frame and since it is unbalanced we feel slight awkwardness, but we assume what is going to be shown. In the frame below we have a center framed image that is negative. As the eyeline is not crossing center frame but comes over the camera. We anticipate that we will be shown what the subject is looking at, but it is not assumed. We are not sure it will be shown. This creates unrest in the audience.

Let’s take a look at the frame below. This is close to a symmetrical image, a balanced positive image. Everything is contained. We have no desire to know anything outside of the frame. All kinetic temporal energy is contained within what we see. If kinetic temporal energy is directing us outside the frame, that can justify camera movement or a cut. The lack of doing so will cause the audience stress.

In the frame below, the shot has been uncropped. We now still have a mostly positive and mostly balanced image, but the extra room on the right side of the frame causes us to infer that we will see something over to the right. Which in this case the audience would be correct because they know two other protagonists were in the previous shot. This is a comfortable shot that does not stress the audience but retains that the other characters are present and important. Their “story force” (a force that is not visual but adjusts the framing) justifies the slight imbalance. 

We have talked a lot about how these principles work alone, but they cause an even more dramatic impact over time. These three images are in sequence.

  • Image 1 – Unbalanced and negative
  • Image 2 – Mostly balanced and a negative slant
  • Image 3 – Slightly unbalanced and mostly positive

The first two images happen within the same shot. The third is cut to. First, we anticipate our protagonist leaving the frame or something entering the frame from either side, but we are not certain. This causes unrest in the audience. As time goes on, Chad enters the frame and grabs him balancing the image and reducing the overall negative draw of the image by casting his gaze in a positive manner. This image is less stressful and more normal, potentially neutral between comfortable and stress. Each audience member will react differently, but this is in general. In the third image, we move to a  mostly positive frame and slightly unbalanced. This creates a mostly comfortable image with the assumption that the audience will see what is off to the right. The story energy of the scene is headed in the opposite direction than the scene began. It was headed left towards the door and over time it changed to the right, but that is a whole other post to discuss that. The importance of this is how these feelings of comfort and anticipation develop over time. Since stories should arc emotionally so should the cinematography. In the same way that two images edited together cause emotion; two framing styles will do the same. But it is not only through edits, but how the scene progresses over time as well. All of this can be planned and used to manipulate your audience into either anticipating or assuming what’s next and either paying that off or rejecting that. The same goes for the comfort vs. uncomfortable aspect. These feelings can also be juxtaposed or complemented by all of the other arts in the film (acting, music, coloring, etc.)

(Note. There are times, like in the center framed shot at the top of the article, that cannot have a positive charge as they are looking over the camera. I would assume in situations like this that it is a negative image. I am not sure on that though. In the last image, Chad is looking over the camera, but I think it is enough crossing center frame that it can be considered positive. Again this is a subjective art and that each image is open to interpretation, but I do believe this catagorization can be applied to all frames with similar insights into the frames meanings.)

I am not claiming that this is fact, but after analyzing frames and how they make me feel I believe this is correct. Framing is not as simple as making a pleasing image. It is about how your frames move through time, what they mean over time, and how the audience feels about frames in combination with one another. Thirds and golden means won’t cut it in storytelling. Those tools help to create meaning and we need to understand the meanings they make, otherwise we are being lazy.  As I have shown, each image is usually not purely positive or balanced, but some will be, most will be somewhere in between. Rarely will you have a purity of any one of these characteristics. This is a guide that I think will be useful in planning shots moving forward, and a good way to see how your cinematography builds and falls over a scene, visually, in terms of framing.


PS: I ask that we as cinematographers and storytellers continue to study and develop visual theory. It is more than instinctive, we cannot leave such an important tool to chance. Help me, help the community, by studying visuals and sharing your findings with both myself and the world.

(The first two stills are from the show “The Knick”. I do not own the rights to those stills, but they were good examples. The other stills I own.)