FREE FILM SCHOOL #7: The Rule of Thirds Totally Rules

Good morning, class. It’s a pleasure to see you once again in the usual classroom; this is the only film school in the world that openly encourages you to attend in your most embarrassing underthings in the middle of the night. Yes it’s time for another session of CRAVE Online’s Free Film School, where I, your pseudo-professional film professor, Witney Seibold, will take you casually and flippantly (yet no less instructively) through a small detail of cinema’s vast life and history, making you smarter about the form, and cooler than your peers. I can make this guarantee: This course will double your cool points, or double your money back.

Today’s lesson may sound a bit dry, as it deals directly with a rule of visual composition that stretches, as it does, all the way back to the late 18th century. Yes, before movies, even. But it’s a rule that directly relates to just about every film you see, and it’s pertinent that I bring it to your attention. “Visual composition,” by the way, is just a five-dollar, multi-syllabic way of saying where things are within a picture frame.


'The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,' here giving a perfect example of the 'The Rule of Thirds.' There's Gandalf, alright… 1/3 of the way into the screen.


The Rule of Thirds isn’t really based on any sort of scientific finding (despite a spate of studies that have been done recently), but stems from a more general sense of aesthetics. Artists once began to notice that if they placed the subject of their painting or photograph slightly to the left or to the right, it would look a little better and a bit more visually pleasing than if they just stuck it dead center. Hence, The Rule of Thirds was born. Left, right, or center. It’s that simple.


In this shot from Ingmar Bergman's 'Persona,' the characters obey 'The Rule of Thirds' even when they intersect the middle of the screen. This shot obeys the rule while simultaneously breaking it by calling attention to the center of the screen, which represents their deeper connection. Whoa.

Free Film School, dudes.


Of course, I’m sure you instantly thought of several filmic examples that broke the rule (Taxi Driver has extreme lefts and rights, The Silence of the Lambs has many dead-centers) and you were right to think so. This is one of those rules that’s so fundamental that filmmakers can easily toy with it. The most famous example of the way this rule was broken is probably Hitchcock’s 1958 classic Vertigo (which I apologize for bringing it up, as film professors traditionally and predictably hammer on Vertigo the same way Shakespeare scholars milk Hamlet). In the film, Hitchcock famously placed the bulk of the film’s action in the dead center of the frame, including faces, profiles, stretchy alleyways, and yes, even cute little sexual cues like boobs. The list of the way The Rule of Thirds is broken is as long as your arm.

But the way it is used (and used rightly) is in literally every single film you see. Whenever two characters have a conversation (and I’ll repeat a bit I said in my lesson on Spatial Continuity), the camera will often cut from one person to the next, showing over-the-shoulder shots for both. But notice that the characters are always about one third of the way across the screen. One will be on the left, and one will be on the right. How weird would it look if, for instance, they were “facing” one another, but both were in the middle of the screen? It would look… off somehow. Wrong. They are now in the same space. This will not do.


Tom Cruise (always the hero) is usually on the left side of the screen, like it in this shot from 'Minority Report.' That's the "heroic" side. You'll often find that the hero switches to the right side when they're on the losing side for a change.


When we see our hero for the first time in any film, he or she will likely be sitting one third of the way across the screen. It just looks better. It feels better. There’s something inherently human about wanting to see a frame this way. Like the character is looking out over the rest of the screen. It’s like we’re reading the screen, book-like, from left to right. And we want our hero to be taking up space on the left side of the screen, so we can “read” the action to the right. Does this make sense yet?


In this group shot from Mark Sandrich's 1935 musical classic 'Top Hat,' note that there's nobody standing in the center of the screen. All attention would be focused there if somebody was.


As cinematic history has elapsed, the use of The Rule of Thirds has become a bit looser, and new creative techniques have, of course, toyed with trends. But watch a film from the early 1930s sometime (say, the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film Top Hat, to choose one you oughtta watch anyway), and you’ll see that the staging is a little more theatrical, a little more easily blocked. Through that scene, you’ll find the rule will be a little more clear. But even if you’re up late, re-watching Speed 2: Cruise Control (to choose a film completely at random), you’ll still see it in place, despite the special effects, quick edits, high-octane action, and bug-eyed faces from Willem Dafoe. It may feel a bit more natural these days, but your eye will react in the same way. You’ll be naturally drawn to a certain area of the screen.


Every movie, good (like all our other examples) or bad (like 'Deep Gold,' above) uses or at least plays off of 'The Rule of Thirds.'


It’s been said by ancient frothing scholars, who are hundreds of times more wise than I, that “heroes” occupy the left side of the screen, while only “villains” occupy the right. When a character moves from the left to the right, it is a heroic action, while a character who moves from the right to the left, well, they’re acting against nature. Again, this stems more from an innate sense of aesthetics within ourselves, and less anything that is codified or measurable. It’s been suggested that it has to do with the way we read (left to right), although it has yet to be proven if the opposite is true in countries where they read left to right (like Israel, or Japan, or any country that speaks Arabic).

So if you want to shoot a scene yourself, and you’re confused as to where to put the camera, stick by The Rule of Thirds, and you’ll find how easy and natural the scene looks. The staging can be different throughout, but if you keep things one-third of the way across, you’ll be golden.


HOMEWORK FOR THE WEEK: Do this: Get some plastic wrap from the kitchen, and stretch it across your TV screen. Tape it into place. Using a big marker, mark vertical lines ⅓and ⅔of the way across the screen. Put a dot right in the center. If you have trouble finding the center, make a big “X” across the screen. Now put on any film. Really, anything will do (although, if you must take an assignment, I recommend Chinatown). Try to notice how often a character or a notable visual cue will appear right on the Third line. What kind of characters appear on such a line? The other line? How often will a notable event be placed in the center?

If you’ve gone that far, try the same experiment vertically? Does the same rule work moving from the top to the bottom of the screen? Do these experiments, and you’ll find you’ll not look at movies the same way ever again.