Film composition is a list of techniques directors, and cinematographers use to enhance the moviegoing and television-watching experience. Many of these techniques are subtle in ways or overly obvious when looking. For example, a strong sense of color may convey the scene’s tone or feel, a sound or music note to bring out an emotion, or even just using Leading Lines.

Have you ever watched something and found your attention being pulled to focus on a particular subject? Then this is most likely done on purpose by the person behind the camera guiding the audience to something important in the scene. However, leading lines can be highly distinct or subtle, with different lengths, angles, or directions. One thing, to begin with, is what exactly are “leading lines.”

What are Leading Lines

Leading Lines is a form of film and photography composition element that are actual lines in a shot. They lead the eyes in a particular direction to focus on critical areas, details, or subjects in a scene. This method visually draws the audience’s interest as their sight naturally follows the path of the lines to see what’s ahead. The compositional technique can sometimes form “line shapes”—a river or a tree line—and “artificial line shapes”—roads, bridges, and fences.

Method of Use

Directors, photographers, and cinematographers use leading lines in most of their shots. It’s not a requirement, but the technique can help elevate a scene or picture. Typically its use is for directing the viewer’s eye, creating a focal point, or establishing visual symmetry. In addition, it is a method used to make connections between characters or items within the scene. The film composition can also guide the audience to where they should be; specific editing techniques will keep them looking in the right direction for an upcoming scene.

Although the words “leading lines” might evoke a level of thinking that seems simplistic, several types of leading lines are used in entertainment.

Vertical Leading Lines

Vertical leading lines guide the viewer’s eye upward or downward in the frame and convey power, dignity, and strength. In addition, using these lines in a shot will have a strong or imposing tone effect on the scene. One example of vertical leading lines is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. In the movie, Danny Torrance (Danny Lloyd) turns in the corridor of the Overlook Hotel and sees two ghostly twins at the end of the hall.

The vertical lines of the hotel room doors follow down this hall and allow the audience to focus on two figures. The POV from Danny showcases a level of invisible power over the child as he is frozen in fear. The opposite of vertical lines also has an opposite effect when used.

Horizontal Leading Lines

Calm and peace are traditionally associated with horizontal lines. These lines work perfectly with nature shots and give the scene a relaxing level of openness, especially in atmospheric settings and when paired with great lighting. Director Christopher Nolan uses this in his films to display tranquility in certain shots.

In 2010’s Inception, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) leads his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) across a landscape in the Dreamworld. However, many of the buildings are vertical; the horizontal setting of the scene makes the viewer look left to right. As a result, the audience can examine the environment from both sides as the characters lead into the next scene. However, if one tilts the leading line slightly, it shifts the scene’s perspective.

Diagonal Leading Lines

Diagonal lines are typically visually followed from foreground to background or left to right. In some cases, the subject can be at the start or end of the line, which will have maximum impact on the scene or the following scene. A leading diagonal line going downward can also mean a serene feel but sloping upwards tends to add unease and tension to the frame. An example of that inquietude nature shows in one of the most iconic scenes in cinema.

Director Alfred Hitchcock is considered one of the masters of suspense. His evocative 1960 film, Psycho, is a masterclass of how to build tension and continues to thrill audiences to this day. An example of diagonal leading lines is demonstrated during the memorable shower scene featuring Janet Leigh. As the scene plays out, the camera cuts to the shower curtain being pulled and taken off the rings from the rack.

This shot feeds the off-tilted energy of the frame. An unease and askew angle subconsciously cause the audience to believe that everything in this scene and the next to follow will continue to be uncomfortable. This small detail speaks volumes about Hitchcock manipulating the viewer to his will.

Curved leading Lines

Leading lines that are more on the curved sign have several meanings but are a bit less used. In nature, curved lines are used more naturally, highlighting specific landmarks or roads. Using these lines can symbolize a clean and refined setting. If not, it insinuates a journey for a subject instead of the viewers being led, like in Denis Villeneuve’s 2017’s Blade Runner 2049.

The movie features several curvatures within the scenes that showcase a hierarchical level, yet, it’s also an odyssey for two characters. For example, in a scene featuring K (Ryan Gosling) and a young woman in a sterile environment, the camera angle turns into a broad view of the clean room. In addition, the walls around the room appear with carvings that signify that the journey of these characters will end where the lines stop.

Converging Leading Lines

Finally, converging leading lines is a practice that uses lines from various sides of the frame to meet toward one space or subject. It brings all the attention to focus on one subject and is helpful in settings where chaos or fast-pacing scenes play out. Using converging lines effectively focuses the viewer’s attention toward a specific point. Director Martin Scorsese has used this method in past films to heighten the audience’s moviegoing experience.

Some consider 1980’s Raging Bull Scorsese’s best film ever. The story of the life of a boxer, Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), is plagued with violence, bad tempers, and decisions that affect those around him in varying ways. Scorsese uses converging leading lines to accurately illustrate the level of violence that comes to the LaMotta character.

LaMotta is against the ropes while in the ring with Sugar Ray Robinson (Johnny Barnes). The camera cuts to Robinson, where the camera performs a dolly pull, and we see the ropes and the light behind the boxer. The position of the ropes and lights showcase a set of invisible leading lines that aim and converge to Robinson. This shot now dictates this is the most crucial subject of the image. After that, a barrage fist is fired from Robison and brutally connects with LaMotta.

Conclusion

Understanding the different ways and types of leading lines that cinematographers use can employ a profound understanding of cinema and attracts the audience’s eyes to determine an essential path. Using this technique is not mandatory in entertainment. Still, the composition will make any aspiring director, cinematographer, or photographer more knowledgeable about framing. It’s an art form that can advance the story, reveal character, and create emotion that keeps the audience engaged from beginning to end.