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Designing Camera Shots

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Sherri Sheridan talks about how to create interesting camera shots in a digital film, explaining how to use the camera to lead the viewers' eyes, and how positioning and moving the camera conveys emotion in the film.
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Designing Camera Shots

This article is excerpted from Developing Digital Short Films, by Sherri Sheridan (New Riders Publishing, 2004, ISBN 0-7357-1231-X).

Understanding how our eyes naturally work will help you design better shots. Pay attention to where your eyes move around in a film. You can do this by pointing your finger at the screen, and moving it around to follow the motion in the shots that is leading your eyes around the frame. Great films have a very carefully choreographed, visual, ballet-type movement through the images. The viewer's eyes should be dancing or jerked across the images to evoke specific emotions.

What we look at is guided by our idea of what to look for in the frame.

Previous experiences with films, art, and the world determines what the audience assumes and expects visually. This is one of the reasons original visions are always appreciated, because new perspectives expand the possibilities of our world.

What Moves the Eye

Think back to the last movie you saw. Which moments in the film really held your attention? What were the strongest images? At what point in the film did they occur? We often are so busy watching that we don't take time to think about what captures our attention and why. We know that the human eye is drawn to specific things. Here are the items that will capture the attention of your viewer, listed in order of importance:

  • Movement. Our eyes naturally go to even the slightest movement in a still frame. If there are several moving objects, our eyes jump between them. If everything is moving, we get a headache fast. A good rule of thumb is to have just one new thing happening at a time to lead the viewer's eye around the frame.

  • Color differences. One small patch of bright color against a dark background draws the eye into it. In general, warm colors attract the eye more than cool ones. Pay attention to this when lighting subjects in order of importance for each scene. Maybe the main character of the moment gets a yellow light, whereas the rest are all in blue lights. You could also put a bunch of red objects in a line with one hot pink one; the eye will go to the pink. If there are several light areas in a dark frame, our eyes go back and forth. See the color insert section of this book for visual examples.

  • Weight of objects in frame. Objects with more weight or mass get more attention, but this can be manipulated if done consciously. Big objects in the distance have less weight than smaller objects in the foreground that take up more screen space. (More on balance soon.)

Creating More Interesting Camera Shots

The camera is a roving mechanical eye, revealing the story as it slides across the images. Think of the camera as being in the privileged-spectator position (having the best seat in the house for the story being told). Keep in mind that video is inherently more intense, emotional, aggressive, and vulgar than the lush and beautiful world of film. When planning your camera shots, remember to use these digital qualities to your advantage. Study films you like and add to the following list as you see new techniques:

  1. Camera movement should create suspense by slowly revealing story information.

  2. Do the arrangements of the shots make us concentrate on one particular story detail at a time.

  3. Play some shots over and over again for added impact. What types of shots may work best for this? You could slip in really intense moments that are coming up in the film as flash cuts to foreshadow events, build tension, or ask questions.

  4. Moving shots are better when motivated by something in the story. A character moves, and the camera follows. If something in the space needs to be revealed, a moving camera shot shows us.

  5. Frame each person for his or her personality. Big, powerful, and bossy people get a low angle looking up at them. (For instance, in a dramatic MS, the person may be pushing buttons on a control panel.) A weak little girl might get an LS showing her dangling her legs in a pond (showing how frail she is in her environment).

  6. Never cut to characters waiting to act. Have them in the middle of doing something or walking into the frame.

  7. Have characters walk into the frame for a scene and out at the end into another scene.

  8. Have one character pop out from behind another one.

  9. Crop half of a character out of the frame to make the shot more interesting if you can make it fit the story in some way.

  10. Clip the top of characters' heads or parts of faces off to make more interesting compositions. Do not think you have to put the whole head in the frame.

  11. Play with extreme camera angles. DV cameras are so much easier to maneuver in tight spots. 3D animation cameras can do almost anything. Try tilting the camera straight down over someone's face from above for an interesting shot. What other extreme angles could you try on a talking head? Traditional 35mm film cameras are huge, heavy, cumbersome things that you can't move around very easily. Embrace what is easy and new with digital filmmaking to tell stories in fresh ways. What other ways can you think of to do original digital camera shots?

  12. Shoot CU body parts of characters to show emotion and to use for cutaway scenes (for instance, hands twisting around inside each other to show tension or knees shaking to show fear). Go through each of the emotions in a scene and ask what type of universal body movement you could cut to, to illustrate that emotion visually.

  13. Have the character scan a location with her eyes (eye-line match discussed soon), and then cut back and forth to reveal space several times.

  14. Think of each scene as its own little short film with specific shot patterns, visual styles, lighting, sound, and editing to fit emotions.

  15. Be consistent with camera movement patterns in shot sequences. Create a pattern where you go through a series of shots. You could do this by creating a series of left-to-right pan shots following a character on his way to work, all going left to right at the same speed and for the same shot length. You could also go up to down or diagonally or any direction in a series of shots. The first time you break this established visual pattern will have a big impact. Make sure this type of shot series reveals the space in a clear way. Study other films to see how you need to break this up to make it work with the narrative elements.

  16. Put posters, photographs, signs, drawings, video monitors, or TVs playing mesmerizing DV footage in the background to convey theme metaphors, plot metaphors, or character traits.

  17. Take advantage of atmospheric scene space (especially important in documentary). Collect lots of landscape atmospheric shots, close-up cutaways of interesting objects, characters doing things without any dialogue in between takes, subjects working/playing/resting in the background.

  18. Moving camera shots should all start and end on still frames to make editing choices easier. You can always throw out the still frame, but you cannot add one if things are always moving in the shot.

  19. Shoot with an eye for editing. Pan and zoom shots work better when you start on a still frame, move around a subject, and then end on a still frame. Show a detail cut. Move the camera to another detail cut. The still frames give you room to edit between shots without having to slam two fast-moving shots together.

  20. Get a feel for sensing the action in the shot and following it with smooth camera movements. Incorporate still shots between movements for more editing choices.

  21. Use dramatic transitions between shots if it supports the story. Using techniques such as visual match cuts from scene to scene help make the story feel very tightly woven.

  22. Keep in mind that shots usually get closer to the characters as the scene progresses.

  23. Plan more types of shots for fast-paced scenes. This will give you ample editing choices for fast cuts.

  24. Placement of camera and framing are always determined by what is important to the story at that moment. Don't have gratuitous camera movement if it does not add to the story.

  25. When setting up shots, make sure the visuals tell the story without any sound or dialogue. Watch great films with the sound off to see how everything in the frame communicates the story as visually as possible through the placement of characters, gestures, set design, prop placement, lighting, framing, and shots.

  26. Create each shot to look like a brilliant painting or photograph that moves.

  27. Show character thought through metaphoric and symbolic activities. Characters may be shown contemplating reality by pulling paint off walls, drawing patterns in the dirt with a stick, or torturing bugs. All of these actions tell us something about the character. People spend lots of time in real life just trying to understand reality. This pause in action gives the audience a chance to identify with the character and wonder what they are thinking, which pulls them into the story. Let your film breathe in moments like this.

  28. CUs tend to motivate POV shots, so make sure you do an eye-line match and shoot what the character is looking at after the CU. Storyboards really help you plan these. You could just shoot a character after the scene in the same framing doing a series of looks in different directions for more choices when editing eye-line matches.

  29. Think of the camera as the character's eyes. What new way can you show what the character sees on a POV shot? A falling-down character could be duplicated with someone holding a mini DV camera falling over or an animated camera simulating a fall POV.

  30. Place characters on the edge of the frame when they are desperate, trapped, or out of options. Make them looked boxed in by elements composed in the frame.

  31. Moving camera shots should take off soft and land soft. This makes editing easier, too, because it is hard to edit all moving camera shots without still frames on the ends. You must have lots of slower moving static type shots, too, to put air in the film. Too many fast moving shots make viewers dizzy, overwhelmed, and immune to more subtle uses of camera movement.

  32. Arrange actors in a shot according to their relationships to each other. Place symbolic objects between them, such as telephone wires in the background for communication problems or scissors on the table for tense emotional conversations.

  33. What type of experience do you want to invite the viewer into during each shot or scene? Your goal is to help the audience really get into the film world story with original POVs, camera reveals, and movement.

  34. Light characters to reveal story. Traditionally, antagonists get darker lighting in a scene.

  35. Conflict scenes should be layered with lots of sharp graphical textures, shapes, and lines to convey conflict. You also can add impact by layering textured sound effects, such as firecrackers going off in the background, or sirens, or lightning.

  36. Exclude some object of great importance at the beginning of a scene, and then reveal it with the camera in a startling way later. A character could suddenly turn toward the camera and ask for something, as a hand reaches into the frame from behind the camera space revealing a character who has been sitting there the whole time.

  37. Arrange your shots with graphical compositions to create patterns of shapes so that lighting, costume, and figure behavior interact with contrasting colors and movement.

  38. Put your camera on the floor or street level to see what types of shots might work. Tilt them up a little for dramatic perspectives.

Split Screen for Intimacy

In Requiem for a Dream, we see a split screen of two characters falling in love face to face in two separate shots on the screen simultaneously talking and touching. Sometimes there is a CU of both faces on each side, nose to nose. In another shot, we see the girl talking with an ECU of her fingers touching his skin on the other side of the split screen. These views enable us to see the intimacy developing between two lovers in a very unique and touching way. These shots are much more interesting to watch than two people fumbling around on a couch. What new ways can you frame each of your scenes to show us something new about a familiar situation? Can you use a split screen in a way we have not seen before?


Legal Problems. Plan your short film so that there are no movie posters, art, film footage, images, or music in your shots that you do not have rights to use. Have an artist friend make a loose copy of an element you may want to use, such as a Kandinsky poster, for set background pieces. Incorporate theme metaphors with strange words in your new versions. Having even one image someone else owns the rights to in your film will render it unscreenable at many festivals, venues, online sites, and cable channels.

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