As the point of entry for the audience, the camera is the most important tool when film making. So far on this blog I’ve covered several subjects that revolve around the usage of the camera, but nothing solely dedicated to that central topic. The quality of the footage for a video is dependent upon much more than the specs of the camera. It is much more important that the cinematographer and camera operator(s) have complete control of every cut. With enough variance and skill the final product is massively improved.
Length of Shots
While the final length of each shot comes down to the editor, the effect of the cinematographer is still seen before and after editing. The length of each shot gives it a different feel, as well as the placement of the shot affecting the overarching progression of the storytelling.
Long, uncut sequences give a sense of focus, and they encourage the audience to keep watching for the eventual reward. Each cut in a video has an intention to reveal something new, and subconsciously viewers tend to locate that new piece of information and then mentally move on. It’s much more difficult to glaze over uncut shots, as long as something is happening in the video. The audience has to keep watching to identify the main purpose of the cut.
Long shots are difficult to pull off, but when they are done well they are quite impressive. This depends on the level of action and the amount of people on screen, because the more these factors extrapolate the more difficult it is to even get a single finished clip. The best way to approach long shots is to act as if they are a stage play. They require a lot of rehearsal, with more practice for lines and choreography than quick cuts. Sometimes, multiple days should be set aside for practice before filming even begins.
When we plan a video with an intensive focus on quick cuts, it’s important to get a general idea of each clip before filming. The benefit of cutting between segments of action and dialogue is that it’s easier overall to film these sequences. With this approach, physical preparation is much simpler. I have a few basic notes for filming with multiple cuts:
- Motions continue in the same direction as the cut before. For example, if someone walks off screen to the left and continues walking in the next shot, then they should be walking towards the left.
- Lighting will change. It’s difficult to discern with the human eye, but when we get into editing it’ll be much easier to notice. Lightning needs to be consistently checked between each shot.
- Actors will fidget. This is bound to happen, no matter the amount of preparation; it occurs in almost every single movie that I’ve ever seen. In new cuts, actors will not be in the exact same position as they were in the cuts before. The only way to efficiently counter this is to film with multiple cameras and create the cuts in editing, but this ultimately requires the same preparation as long shots.
Cutting Back and Forth
Cutting back and forth, or “flipping the camera”, refers to a series of opposite shots, wherein each new angle is a 180o flip from the shot before. This occurs often in conversations, with cuts between the two actors and their little line segments. It’s a tactic for ease of filming, with both the actual line delivery being streamlined and the necessary skill of camera work being minimal. The way to avoid coming across as inexperienced is to spice these shots up. If we must resort to a sequence of cutting back and forth, then we need a good reason to do so. An intense focus on the dialogue and facial reactions to it is a strong motive for this style of filming, and as such our shots should be receptive of that. Use close shots, with a lingering focus on the subtle details.
Before the camera’s rolling, we have the opportunity to arrange everything in our shots accordingly. There is an imagined result for each shot that we plan, but without a massive amount of money and resources to depend upon, that tentative image will be shattered by reality. Nevertheless, this mental picture is an example of what we want to see on the screen. There will be pieces of this scenario that are more important than others, and we should focus on those pieces to set the background and feel of our shots. Everything on screen becomes a part of the video, regardless of how much we want it there. With enough foresight, everything in the shot can be planned.
Background and Foreground
To set a scale for staging, there are essentially three main layers to every shot. We have the subject, which is our focus for the shot. We have the background, which is everything beyond the subject. And we have the foreground, which is everything in front of the subject. Depending on our filming choices and the power of our camera, the background and foreground can be set to different levels of focus. What we then place in those parts of the shot helps shape the video. While the main action is of course our subject, what is placed or happening around it helps make the video feel alive.
Secrets in Plain Sight
Going along with the idea of focus and staging, we can use the background and foreground to our advantage to help propel the story. These secrets are easily viewable by anyone who is watching, in that they are not blocked from view. However, they are often featured in such a way that they are apart from the subject and the action. Many times when an audience member witnesses one of these secrets, they subconsciously register it in their mind and only realize what they saw when it becomes important later. This adds a feeling of complexity and layering to our video.
Stories that are produced as films should have a very powerful visual aspect. We know from years of silent movies that we don’t need an intense focus on dialogue to tell a story. While we shouldn’t omit all dialogue entirely just for the sake of avoiding it, take note that there is power in visual storytelling.
When a scene is shown in complete silence, there are a couple of factors at play to determine how successful it will be. Ideally, the audience will be entranced enough that they will remain interested throughout. Once the viewers have been captured by the spell of the movie, a silent scene can actually do wonders to keep them watching intently. The key is to use silence and audio intermittently, in such a way that the viewers are expecting sound to return, or expecting something to happen in the quiet to disrupt the peace.
Counter to Audio
People lie, and because of that, characters lie too. So often in films, there will be the familiar moment of discovery, wherein a major characters finds evidence of a lie or wrongdoing in complete silence. The idea behind these scenes is that the revelation can be shown by what occurs on screen, with no unnecessary dialogue of any characters explaining what is happening. Another example of the ‘counter to audio’ idea is where the visual performance is opposed to whatever we are currently hearing. This could be a dialogue that is describing the opposite of reality, and thus an obvious lie. Or it could be a happy song playing while something horrible is occurring. In any case, the visual cue is more powerful than the audience simply being told that they have been fooled. To discover that a character has been lied to, and thus the audience has been lied to, the audience need to feel like they are discovering it too. It needs to be brought to life with a visual representation.