ABC of Cinematography

If you have never planned and shot a film before read this first. Below are the steps to consider with example videos of how to do it.

  • About camera work
  • How to plan for your film
  • How to write for your film
  • Tips for lighting
  • Sound sites
  • What to avoid

About Camera Work

The camera is the eye of the audience. This is how you introduce the narrative to your audience. Make sure to treat the relationship of the camera to the location and characters with the necessary respect.

These are some of the aspects you need to know about:

  • Shot types or how to frame the scene
  • Camera angles or how the audience perceives the scene and characters
  • Camera movement
  • Tools to use

Shot Types

Shot types are a very intimate way of looking at the relationship of the characters to their surroundings. You will need to learn the most important shot types such as:

  • XWS or EWS – Extra Wideshot
  • WS – Wideshot
  • FS – Fullshot
  • MS – Midshot
  • MCU – Medium Closeup
  • CU – Closeup
  • XCU or ECU – Extreme Closeup
  • OSS – Over-the-shoulder shot
  • POV – Point of view

There are a few more shot types, but it does not really matter. I do not care about the academic value of filmmaking. What matters is what you do with it. So, learn what the psychological significance of each shot is. Generally, the larger shot types are establishing a relationship of the narrative to the environment, landscape or cityscape, while the medium range shot types look at the relationship of the immediate environment to the character and finally the closer shot types look at psychological clues in the character or objects. Visit any of the inspirational resources below to learn about the shot types.

The StudioBinder Blog’s Ultimate Guide to Camera Shots (50+ Types of Shots and Angles in Film).

A Guide to Basic Cinematography on YouTube channel dky29 by Jamesy Dub Productions

Find the above resource as well on Vimeo’s Uni Work JW:

See also YouTube’s Tomorrows Filmmakers – Types of Shots:

Camera Angles

While shot types refer to the relationship of the characters to the surroundings and to one another, camera angles relate to how the viewer perceives a scene.

The camera angle is about how the character in the scene perceives the world around him or her. Use a low angle if the character is small, like a child or if the character is approached by a massive person, like Frankenstein’s Monster.

Low angles are often used in horror to make the monsters, vampires and werewolves look more imposing and dangerous. The viewer feels smaller and the low angle has an intimidating effect.

Image from Reservoir Dogs, 1992
Low Angle Shot from Reservoir Dogs by Quentin Tarantino, 1992 (Source: April’s Aperture Blog)

High angle shots give the impression that you are looking down on people. This is to show power over others. It could show that the character is simply taller or at a higher vantage point.

High angles are more empowering if placed before and after a low angle.

High angle shot from a scene from
High Angle from “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” by Guy Ritchie, 1998 (Source: Empire)

The high angle used in this shot emphasises how the group of friends feel low and hung-over after a big night.

The other useful camera angle is the Dutch Tilt. This is a slight angle of the camera and gives a feeling of uneasiness. The idea is to give the impression that the character is either drunk, drugged, injured or in any other way confused or out of balance. You could also use the Dutch Tilt in a fight scene.

You might find it interesting to read that Dutch Tilt has no relation to the Dutch, Holland or Netherlands, but was actually first used in German cinema as early as the 1910s as a key element of German Expressionism. In German you say “deutsch” for German, so the angle became known as the “Deutsch” or Dutch Tilt.

Scene from film 'The Third Man' using the Dutch Tilt camera angle.
Dutch Tilt from iconic master piece “The Third Man” (Source: The Lumiere Reader)

Camera Movement

Camera movement refers to how the camera moves through the set. The camera can move in ways related to our human physique:

  • panning = looking from side to side (while standing)
  • tilting = looking up and down, as in when checking someone out or when judging someone

Other movements reflect flight, or travelling at speed next to the action. Sometimes this may be two objects, vehicles or riders travelling next to each other, but often it is just the audience observing the action. Examples are:

  • tracking or dolly shot = moving towards a point in the distance often following the characters
  • crab shot or sideway track shot = moving along with the characters sideways
  • crane shot = flying above a scene either to come in close after showing the land or cityscape or as in the example below from Highnoon by zooming out and giving a sense of space (and loneliness in the example)

One of the best tracking shots is the example below from Scorsese’s Goodfellas

Below is an example of a crane shot from the Wild West classic High Noon. A movie that is loved and hated as well. John Wayne was a big critic of it for not doing justice to American citizens of Wild West towns in the late 1800s.

Read more about camera movement at:

StudioBinder’s What is a Tracking Shot? The 25 Best Tracking Shot Examples & Definition

Tools to Use

Steadycams (or steadicams) are amazing tools that will not just make your camera work smooth when using midrange to highend cameras, but it will have a stablising effect on your camera work even when using your smart phone.

Check out the two steadycams below.

See the MoVI Steadicam in action. It is an impressive piece of footage showing the filming process with the assistance of the steadycam as well as the impressively smooth footage.

The Yelangu s60t is a very affordable steadycam and it bears good results. See video below by YouTube channel Andyax.

How to Plan for Your Film

  • Developing the Narrative
  • Storyboarding

Developing the Narrative

Narrative is another word for story and even description. The word narrative is used in the context of writing a story that can be told either verbally or as a film. A film is generally the telling of a story often with the help of a narrator.

The narrative is your chance to tell a story and the narrative is what others are interested in, or in other words it is the art of the narrative that brings us together. It is an important component of successful media, such as social media.

Narratives have recommended structures and these structures tend to vary depending on the film/book genre. Some examples of genres for films are:

  • Adventure
  • Drama
  • Tragedy
  • Fantasy
  • Comedy
  • Romance
  • Fairy tale
  • Legend
  • Science Fiction

The Elements of a Narrative

So, what are the elements of the narrative? The elements are the parts that you will to cover to develop a narrative, that is worthy to be told.

The elements include the

  • purpose
  • characters
  • plot
  • narrative timeline
  • conflict
  • setting
  • point of view and
  • atmosphere

Establishing the Purpose

What do you want to accomplish with your story? What message or feeling do you want to express? What details do you want to focus on?

Generally, you will want to convey an idea or teach a value in your narrative. You know the phrase ‘the morale of the story’. This is the underlying aspect of what you want to teach your audience. This can manipulative. If you want to teach your audience about the importance of perseverance you may focus on a story about an athlete that never gives up and against the odds continues to compete until being successful and winning the ultimate competition.

Are you going to tell a personal story, about something that you have experienced? Will you make the story up or are you going to retell a story from our past?

Do you want your audience to laugh or be amused, be inspired or do you want to frighten them or challenge their analytical skills? Will you point out the importance of friendship, family or a national identity? Or would you rather alarm the audience to the dangers of technology and robotics?

In a paragraph establish the purpose of the narrative.

Decide on and Develop Characters

What are the characters of your narrative going to be? Establish the main character or protagonist. Who is the friend, side-kick or confidant? Decide who the villain or antagonist of the story is? This is the evil or at least bad person in the narrative. Some writers have anti-heroes, they are more protagonists with a dark side. The antagonist does not have to be just evil, but may be bad, but with a heart or principles.

The love interest is the one desired by the protagonist and often by the antagonist as well. A good love interest has personality and is three-dimensional.

These are the main characters to clarify. You may not need all of them.

Next describe your main characters (protagonist and antagonist) by describing and showing their actions or giving an example of what they have done to others in the past. Describe their physical attributes, clothing and how they wear it, describe mannerisms, behaviours and eccentricities or borderline weird traits. Describe psychological attributes, their temperament, their fears and their fantasies. Write about their culture, social standing (socio-economic status) and values. Give an example of what makes your character extraordinary.

Write what motivates your character and make sure to give your characters depth or personality by including positive and negative characteristics.

Also write how your character changes throughout your story.

Give the other characters personalities and avoid that they are just stereotypes (this is good advice for live: do not be a stereotype!)

Read more on characters in:

Develop a Plot

When crafting a plot you are looking at the events of the story and placing them on a timeline. The basic idea of an interesting plot is:

  • everything is good
  • something bad happens = a problem
  • this builds up and leads to a conflict (protagonist vs antagonist)
  • a climax is when things spiral out of control or when an event reaches its peak
  • conflict gets resolved – Hollywood: happy ending – Italian opera: death of the protagonist and suicide of the love interest – lol

So, generally a story is not worth telling if there is no conflict or problem.

Narrative Timeline

So, when you place the events of the plot on a timeline you have some freedom regarding the order of the events. There should Keep in mind that every story has two timelines, the narrative timeline or order in which the author chooses to relate the events, and the chronology or order in which they happen in time.

There are four typical ways to structure your narrative:

  • linear structure: using the linear structure means that you will tell the story chronologically using the principles of cause and effect. The events are structured in the order of how they happened.
  • fractured structure: using the fractured or nonlinear structure means you are telling the story by jumping backwards and forwards in time. This structure can be more exciting, but potentially very confusing.
  • framed structure: with a framed structure you have a story framed by another story, like a picture framed on the wall. A story describing events of today may be framed by a story of the past or vice versa. A secondary story tells of events in the past, such as how the parent or grand parent experienced a similar age.  The secondary story may provide a context to help the viewer or protagonist to understand events in the present.
  • real time: real time is a linear structure that is not just told chronologically, it has no breaks or forward jumps in time.

Read more on how to develop a narrative in:

Storyboarding

Watch YouTube’s Storyboarding – Tomorrow’s Filmmakers:

How to Write for Your Film

Scriptwriting

A script or screenplay is written as an instruction to the actors, cameramen and the director. The script includes most importantly the dialogue, but it also describes the camera shots, angles and movement, the visual elements, characters, behaviour and the sound. The script includes a reference of time and duration of a scene. 

If the plot is somehow the map of the events, the script are the instructions of what to do and say when and what happens around the action. It depicts the events as they are about to occur in the scene.

A scene is an event at a specific location, e.g. in the living room/lounge, or on the balcony. A scene ends with the change of location.

A number of scenes can be grouped as a sequence. The scenes of a sequence will be connected by time or location.

Below is an example of a script. Using online tools for script writing is a great idea. I highly recommend using StudioBinder to develop your script.

Below is an example of a script shown with the scene on YouTube channel Screenplayed. I highly recommend you watch the channel every weekend for entertainment. The scene below is an iconic scene with Robbin Williams and Matt Damon. It is an amazing scene about our fear to commit. There are other iconic scenes from Scarface, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fight Club, The Big Lebowski, The Godfather and one of the funniest film scenes from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.

Scene from Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds
‘Dominic Decoco! – Bravo!” Funny scene from Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds with introductions of Antonio Margheriti and Dominic Decoco – Found on Facebook

Warning though, watching some of the videos can lead to some spoilers for the film.

Scene from Good Will Hunting on YouTube channel Screenplayed showing the scene and script at the same time
A wonderful scene from Good Will Hunting on YouTube channel Screenplayed showing the scene and script at the same time

What to include in a script:

  • Scene heading – in all caps: EXT. PRINCES PARK – NIGHT
    • EXT for exterior scene or INT for interior scene
    • location name
    • time of day
  • Characters (in ALL CAPS when introduced to scene) with a description.
  • scene number
  • time reference (2:50 may 2min 50sec into the film or sequence)
  • duration of shot
  • frame/shot type/transition (CU=close up, WS=wideshot) include transitions or changes form shot to shot after editing camera movement (crab shot)
  • visual – describing the overall look of the location
  • narration & dialogue -describing the events and the dialogue
  • audio – sounds of the scene
  • SFX – special effects

Read more on script writing in:

Tips for Lighting

Filmmaking 101 – Three Point Lighting Tutorial

Andyax: Easy light setup to improve your films

Sound Sites

For amateur filmmakers a low or no budget scenario keeps the use of sound scores limited to free files. Free tends to be a dirty word when it comes to the Web. Luckily, Creative Commons have opened up new opportunities and access to extensive sound libraries.

https://www.cinema5d.com/5-tips-indie-film-audio/

http://videoandfilmmaker.com/wp/index.php/tutorials/top-10-tips-film-sound-recording/

https://www.premiumbeat.com/blog/record-indie-filmmaking-audio/

What to Avoid

It is good to be aware of what to avoid. Why do amateur actors often get stiff and act artificial during the shot? Are they unaware of their character? Are they confused? Do they have a mindset of someone who does not want to make a mistake? Do they try not to overwhelm the main action and dialogue?

Whatever it is it is important that there is some action in our shots with actors moving about and doing their thing. So, make sure that your actors are busy and ignore the camera (not literally, but they need to pretend that the camera is not there).

Watch other great tips on what to avoid by watching Top 15 Mistakes Beginner Filmmakers Make on YouTube’s D4Darious.

Also read:

EmpireOnline: The 100 best British films

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: