Composition in Philip Bloom’s “2 Nights in Mallory Square”

Flagstaff, AZ, 28 July 2010

If you don’t know who Philip Bloom is, then shoot on over to his site, philipbloom.net, and check out it out. He has nearly single-handedly popularized the DSLR Cinema revolution, not only teaching us how to use DSLRs as a cinematic tool, but setting a high standard through his personal projects.

His latest cinematic short, again, shows off what these cameras can do, and proves that they can be used as a professional tool for filmmaking. Watch it.


2 nights in Mallory Square from Philip Bloom on Vimeo.
Shot on the Canon 5D MK II to test out the Kessler Crane Pocket Jib and the new special Philip Bloom Pocket Dolly.
More info here: http://philipbloom.net/?p=9909
Filmed over two evenings at Mallory Square in Key West, Florida

“Anatomy of a Scene” – Part I: Composition
Through a series of several posts, I will break this short apart, noting why and how it works as a strong piece of short cinema.

Note Bloom’s use of closeups and how filmic his shots look — including expressing key elements of composition (including shot sizes), blocking, and camera movement. They become the tools by which Bloom helps make his video look cinematic (in addition to getting the right picture style look in-camera and conveying a keen understanding of lighting).

Do you want to start shooting images with the cinematic quality of Philip Bloom?

If so, you need to start shooting like a cinematographer — and you don’t need the full equipment package of a Hollywood production team (although that can help) to do this, but you can achieve this shooting solo, if needed, as Philip Bloom has proven with many of his other pieces (“2 nights” used a larger crew). You can’t think like you’re shooting video with a video camera. You need to think about what David Harry Stewart says in an interview at PopPhoto.com:

“If you know the limitations of your camera, you just work within them. For instance, I use a color meter all the time. You have to get the exposure and the color temperature exactly right. It’s like shooting transparencies all over again. H.264 files are 8-bit color. You can’t go from daylight to tungsten in the same shot. It’s not RAW.” (Interview by Miriam Leuchter Posted July 16, 2010; thanks to Mitch at Planet5d blog.)

Shane Hurlbut, ASC, a professional cinematographer shooting on HDSLRs also warns about making sure you get it close: “with 8-bit compressed color, treat it like reversal film stock — you have to get it close” (Red Center, episode 56; http://media.fxguide.com/redcentre/redcentre-056.mp3).

What Stewart and Hurlbut are saying is that you need to be thinking like a cinematographer — and know the limits and expression of the particular film stock you’re using, and if you approach the 8-bit limit of your DSLR and work within that limitation, you can begin to do professional work with these cameras.

Once you understand this, then you can work with the other tools of cinematography, such as gaining an understanding of composition: How your three-dimensional subject and the scene they’re in is composed through your lens. This relies on many factors, including lenses and shot sizes, as well as camera angles. Many cinematographers study paintings as a way to master composition.

George Caleb Bingham’s Mississippi Boatman (1850)

The composition of Bingham’s Mississippi Boatman painting is striking. But what is more interesting is how some of Philip Bloom’s images from “2 nights” (among many of his people series), captures a similar style and composition of Binghman. Although I don’t believe Bloom has studied Bingham’s art, but what Bloom instinctively conveys is a keen concept of composition that echoes what a master painter does with composition, which provides cinematic strength to his HD videos.


Stills from “2 nights in Mallory Square” by Philip Bloom

Both of these stills from Bloom’s “2 nights in Mallory Square” not only convey the compositional sensibilities of an artist (such as Bingham’s work 160 years earlier), but they also engage what good artists always do — capture the essence of humanity in moments of unvarnished truth, the rawness of the human conditioned filtered through the artist’s eyes with aesthetic prowess.

Simplistically, in order to begin to understand how to use composition in your DSLR shoots, study paintings by the masters, but also use rule-of-thirds grid lines (a feature built into most cameras), which provides a decent way to compose your images — keeping eyelines on the top third of the image and your subject in either the right or left third, for example.

But a better way to look at it is through the golden mean — a ratio studied by mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras (from that high school geometry class). Photographer Jake Garn (http://jakegarn.com) says that he prefers to create a composition around the golden mean, because it’s what is found within the natural world. Check out his article, “The Lazy Rule of Thirds“.

Image courtesy of JakeGarn.com.

We can see the Golden Mean applied to one of Jake Garn’s photos:

Image courtesy of JakeGarn.com.

As can be seen, Garn’s photo expresses compositional power along the lines of the Golden Mean.

The rule of thirds will do, but the golden mean is a better tool in your cinematic compositions, because we find it in nature. If you want to see how your images stack up to the Golden Mean, download this Photoshop action from the Shutterfreaks team, “Rule of Thirds and Golden Mean Actions.”

In either case, the most important element in any film is your story. You may create good compositions, but if the content is not compelling, you will likely not attract a large audience.

Kurt Lancaster, PhD, is the author of “DSLR Cinema: Crafting the Film Look with Video, Focal Press.” He teaches digital filmmaking at Northern Arizona University’s School of Communication.

3 thoughts on “Composition in Philip Bloom’s “2 Nights in Mallory Square”

  1. Very informative. I have never consciously used “the Golden Mean” when shooting, but am looking forward to using the Photoshop file (I’m assuming it’s a transparency) to overlay and review my previous work. Thanks.

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