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I get it. You want to be “interesting” or “artsy” or “experimental” with your filmmaking. You think that doing something differently will help your work stand out. This is sometimes true; there are many films that make use of unusual shots or otherwise “break the rules” of cinematography and stand out because of it. Rules in any art form are more properly thought of as guidelines, and skillful bending of the rules with a good cinematographic reason to do so can be used to spectacular effect.

The problem is not that you’re trying to be different and to make your film more interesting. The problem is that you don’t understand what you’re doing and you’re doing it so very horribly wrong.

I don’t watch as many films as I probably should, but two recent watches of mine (“Dear White People” and “Comet”) have violated the basic rules of film composition in a way that both aggravates and concerns me, because the last thing I want to see is this nonsense becoming a common trend in new independent films.

What cardinal sin did these films commit? What has incensed this blog poster so much that something simply had to be said?

Intentionally disrespecting the rule of lead room.

For those who don’t know, lead room is the space in a shot where the “energy” of the shot is directed. If a ball is rolling, a person is talking, a car is moving, or even if someone is simply looking out of a window, a basic rule of composition is that some empty space should be seen in that direction. While both of these films have plenty of well-framed shots, there are an intolerable number of intentionally poorly-framed shots too, shots which detract from the movie significantly. All too often, one character will be talking to another character, but instead of showing the “right-facing” character in the left half of the frame, they place them in the right half (or even the right third) of the frame instead, leaving no lead room and tons of dead space behind the character.

Perhaps the directors felt like these choices would increase viewer interest in the film. Perhaps they were experimenting to see if intentionally doing things wrong would be well-received. Perhaps they’re just being edgy for the sake of being edgy (because it’s totally hipster to break the rules, you guys, didn’t you know that?)

Regardless of the motivations for breaking fundamental rules of composition, every last one of these shots is visually annoying and amateurish. Directors, take note: trying to be edgy and hipster with your cinematography is the easiest way to make your movie suck.

Stop breaking the rules. Give your actors head room, lead room, and avoid creating dead space. If you break these rules and you don’t have an extremely important reason for doing so, you’ll hurt your otherwise interesting and enjoyable film, guaranteed. Your film should be interesting enough to speak for itself without edgy rebellious cinematography. Your film should stand out because of your camera work, not in spite of it.

I enjoyed watching the two films mentioned, but the frequent and intentional use of crappy framing was persistently distracting and (in the case of “Dear White People”) almost drove me to shut the film off and do something else.

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