The 5 “Senses” of a Shot.

Focal Length, Movement, Composition, Focus & Lens Height

The other day I was talking to a young filmmaker about their reel and suggested that they shoot some new material with a longer lens and a wider aperture. In other words, start using focus as a creative element in their shot making. Soon after, I started to think about focus in an anthropomorphic way. By that I mean, focus is as important to photography as taste and hearing is to our human sensory awareness. Our life would be compromised without all of our senses – and so to an extent - could our photography. My thesis is a metaphor and I’ll try not to push it too far – but sometimes, we don’t fully consider each of these “senses” and because of that -some shots fall short of their visual potential.

The script is our guide for the overall look and feel of a project. The building blocks of a narrative production are: acts, scenes, sequences and shots. Shots are in a way, the articles of speech for a scene. Shot structure, or blocking is critical to the sound structure of the scene. The individual shot, combined with the actors performance is where the meaning and the emotion of the scene are conveyed. It’s important to get the shot right! So before rolling, take a moment and consider these 5 “senses” that could improve the shot and the scene.

The following order is random because each shot is unique, meaning that one “sense” might be far more important than another on a shot by shot basis.

Focal Length:

Many directors like to shoot within a particular range of focal lengths. On Gore Verbinski’s gothic comedy -“Mousehunt” our “long” lens was a 27mm! The late, great Tony Scott rarely shot with any lens wider than a 100mm and was very fond of the anamorphic format. These two directors are known for their signature photographic styles and adhere to a strict set of rules when choosing a specific focal length. For me the story and the location motivate some of my choices. If it’s a dispassionate scene I might choose to stand off and use a longer lens for a close up. If its creepy or comedic, a wide lens up close might be a better choice. If it’s a small practical room, you have few choices other than a wide lens. This is one reason for building a set on stage, where a wall can be pulled to enable some distance between lens and subject. I don’t like to pull walls, if it’s a small room I use that as an element in my creative process. But In the end, choosing a lens is usually a collaborative choice between you and the director. Try to choose a focal length that suits the emotion and the environment of your scene. Lenses are powerful, emotional tools - think of them as your eyes for seeing into the soul of the story. Do a close up test with different focal lengths. Maintain the same field of view and then decide how much image compression might be right for your story. A wide lens up close or a long lens far away - two different looks, two different visual statements.

Camera Movement: (aside from panning and tilting)

I like to move the camera. In fact, whether to move or not to move is one of the very first criteria I consider when designing a shot. Reason? Because it takes time to prepare for certain camera moves, notably - laying dolly track or dance floor or preparing the Steadicam rig for a shot. Blocking dictates camera movement most of the time. Then there are no brainers like “walk and talks” and action scenes. Hand held coverage can represent movement in a way that isn’t directional at any time. Just the process of standing there introduces some movement to the frame. That “nervous” frame can add dramatic tension and imbalance. Traditionally though, camera movement is thought of as physically changing the frame by going forward, backward, laterally or up and down - or any combinations of these axis changes. And then, there is the choice not to move the camera at all. That is Woody Allen’s go to option almost 100% of the time. James Cameron, on the other hand, rarely chooses a static frame.

Both choices are completely valid, and as usual, the story, or meaning of the shot, should be your principle guide.  Occasionally you’ll have an unplanned camera adjustment to improve the frame and/or minimize actors from stacking up. So whether you move or not, it’s advisable to be on top of something that can – to accommodate unforeseen frame corrections.

Composition:

Most experienced operators are proficient at “classic” composition. That means they know where to put the subject in the frame, with the proper amount of headroom. If it’s a wide establishing shot, there are choices. Do you frame for a balanced shot, equal amount of sky and ground - use the rule of thirds, or do you de-weight the frame by tilting up or down? I rarely like splitting a shot into thirds, I usually lean towards tilting up as opposed to down. At least that’s where I’ll start. If sets have ceilings I’ll show that, great clouds win out as well. Some directors like “short siding” an actor and that means leading an actor from the wrong side. In other words, your subject is looking camera right and you have placed him on the right side of the frame. I don’t do this very often in the middle of a scene unless the complimentary shot is short sided too. It’s hard to cut “short sided” coverage together and this style takes me out of a scene. As a stand alone shot they work quite well, provided there is something interesting to look at in the negative space. Headroom is very often discussed and I prefer to give a little more of it while shooting in a 16:9 aspect ratio. The shape of the human face is at odds with the shape of our camera frame until you get very, very close like Sergio Leone does in his spaghetti westerns. I don’t like giving actors big “haircuts” while using spherical formats. However if shooting anamorphic, you don’t really have a choice as the frame is so wide. I very rarely suggest extreme close-ups – I’m not a fan of them as I think they are gimmicky. I have a critical eye for composition – I’ll know just how much experience an operator has within a shot or two. I rarely spend much time debating framing with a good camera operator. Experiment!  A strong frame is our goal!
Focus:

The use of focus as a creative tool cannot be overstated. Many young filmmakers use DSLR’s with EF lenses, making good focus pulling next to impossible. And that’s assuming they have someone who knows how to do it. So in the end either everything is sharp or nothing is sharp. Drives me crazy and I am constantly asking them to do tests to get a feel for controlling depth of field as a creative tool. As I’ve said before, the first hire I’ll make on a project is the first assistant cameraman. And I have a great one at the moment, who thrives on the terror of having to accomplish a hairy focus pull. I could write a book about this particular subject and some day I might. Focus is one of the five senses because where you assign the focus is where the audiences attention to the words and the action takes place. You can create intimacy and beauty by deciding what’s in and what’s out of focus. Be patient with your assistant too, give them time to get their marks and rehearse the move if at all possible. When I hear, “lets shoot the rehearsal” I know that the first take is going to have problems. Some shots are complicated for all concerned, actors hitting marks, proper framing and movement and maybe most of all, keeping the subject in focus throughout. Basically it’s a wasted take where a formal rehearsal should have occurred. I remember when we shot on film, we rehearsed a lot more…

Sometimes while shooting with a long lens, I’ll go to a deeper stop (more depth of field) to help with the success of the focus pull, particularly if a dangerous stunt is involved. You never want to do those more than once, if at all possible. I love to see shots where multiple planes of focus are revealed for dramatic reasons. It’s almost as if you are, there peeking around the room in person. Or dialogue scenes where one actor is in the foreground and the other is behind and the focus plays between them throughout the shot. They did this a lot in “Hanna” to great effect. But to do this, you have to know the dialogue to get the timing just right, or it won’t work. Try it sometime! It’s way harder than it looks but what a joy it is, if you can pull it off! Before rolling, make sure you’ve considered everything possible to include focus as a storytelling element.

Lens Height:

Finally, there is lens height. Realize that our own visual perspective changes from person to person because of our own height. So I suppose if we were all seven feet tall, the natural inclination would be to shoot from a higher angle. Same theory, I suppose, applies to shorter statures. One of the reasons I’m not a fan of the Steadicam in regular mode is because of the height of the lens where the camera naturally rests. It’s too high, and falls in that no mans land of TV news coverage, boring and bland with a neutral vanishing point. Therefore I prefer a lens height to enhance the perspective of a scene either emotionally or architecturally. High looking down suggests power and dominance, low looking up – fear and submission. High looking down can convey shame or vertigo, low looking up – awe or perhaps contemplating the heavens. Often times we’ll put a short actor on a box so the over the shoulder coverage keeps approximately the same height. That prevents the audience from unnecessarily thinking that there might be some emotional meaning in the radically different camera heights. It’s a real pain having huge differences in actor heights particularly in ensemble coverage. But those are technical considerations and not really creative ones. I’m in this phase now where I like the camera a bit lower, particularly if the sets or locations are really good. I’m always putting the dolly in low mode or sitting on a box to lower the camera while handholding it. It’s a personal thing and as the DP I impose my will! But seriously, raising or lowering the camera a few inches can really change the feeling of a shot; so consider this as well, before you pull the trigger.

So there it is - five more things to think about before you shoot. Get familiar with the power of these “senses” and soon enough, you’ll be making important creative decisions sub consciously - thus improving your cinematography immediately.

It’s worked for me!

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