The Rule of Thirds was one of the first principles I learned in graduate school in New York, in regards to composing shots for documentary camera work. According to Wikipedia.org:
The Rule of Thirds is a ‘rule of thumb’ or guideline which applies to the process of composing visual images such as designs, films, paintings, and photographs. The guideline proposes that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. Proponents of the technique claim that aligning a subject with these points creates more tension, energy and interest in the composition than simply centering the subject.
I was recently teaching an evening documentary workshop series to adult students at Jaaga Startup in Bangalore, India. During the second class meeting, where we cover documentary production techniques, no sooner had I uttered the name of the Rule of Thirds when I was interrupted by one of the participants, Venugopal, who proclaimed that this principle is for photography and doesn’t apply to motion picture! Now it is important to mention that Venugopal was not a typical student, but a septuagenarian who has 50 years experience in the Indian film industry, and who has worked on multiple monumental films, including the 8-Oscar Award winning, Gandhi.
I immediately could tell this was going to be a long class. After taking a breath and acknowledging his point of view, I reiterated that all the rules I would be mentioning that day are indeed meant to be broken, for the right reasons. But it was my job to at least give the other students, most of whom had no filmmaking experience at all, a brief overview of what traditionally is considered good practice.
While the concept of the Rule of Thirds has been part of our core curriculum for camera work since day one, during our time teaching in India we have also discovered two more “Rules of Thirds”, you could say, that apply specifically to the work that Bent Marble does. The second one, interestingly, is also well-demonstrated by our series at Jaaga Startup, where we offered workshops to a new category of participant… the general public. Up to this point, we had partnered primarily with educational institutions and nonprofits, teaching a lot of young people, and a lot of folks who normally aren’t exposed to filmmaking and digital media.
But what about older learners who aren’t likely to be attending a school or university? And what about those who aren’t in social or financial need, but still have the equally important need to express themselves and share their stories? For that reason, while in India we reached out via our online and offline networks to create and promote a third workshop series, open to all, at Jaaga Startup. And it was a tremendous success, as adult learners, many of whom attended the workshops after a long day in the office, learned documentary filmmaking with unmatched enthusiasm!
This brings us now to our third, and final, Rule of Thirds, which has to do with the idea that teaching documentary filmmaking perhaps needs a “third” week of instruction. When beginning this venture of offering free workshops internationally, mostly to beginners, we aimed to teach the most we could in the shortest amount of time. We figured that asking folks to attend two classes a week for two weeks, as well as do the associated filmmaking assignments, was a big enough time commitment in this uber busy world we live in.
However making documentary films is undeniably a process that requires time. Indeed most professionally made documentaries take many months, if not many years, to complete! Relatedly we have learned, over the last several months, that two-week workshops only “work” if everything goes perfectly smoothly. But this is life, and that, of course, rarely happens. Sometimes students miss a class, due to unavoidable circumstances, and fall behind. Sometimes people need a bit more time to shoot their subjects, or creatively edit their masterpieces. And often we come across unforeseen (but now always expected) technical difficulties, as we try to get our varied camera and computer gear to work and to “play nicely” together. So starting now, and as we plan our next round of teaching in Africa, we will be offering our workshops as an extended three-week series. So there you have it, our third Rule of Thirds!
But before signing off, let’s return one last time to that “tense” documentary production workshop with Venugopal at Jaaga Startup. After introducing a couple more best-practice rules for camerawork, and demonstrating some handheld shooting techniques, I sent the students out with their cameras to practice what they had learned. Interestingly, Venugopal stayed in the classroom and took out his Android tablet, which he had recently begun using to shoot videos. He proudly showed me a whole host of footage he had shot recently at a family member’s wedding, and about which he was thinking of basing his documentary project. The bride, family, and wedding all looked beautiful, as did his footage… each frame of which was shot expertly applying the classic Rule of Thirds!