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Introduction to Cinematography: Part 1

I have been running workshops for the University of Sheffield’s Filmmaking Society for the last three years, covering everything from basic camera operation to set etiquette and general filmmaking techniques. For the latest round of workshops I really wanted to look at the basics of cinematography. I wanted to show how some careful camera and lighting decisions can make some fantastic looking images, even with a limited budget and with minimal crew. If this sounds of interest to you, read on…

I believe all good cinematography starts with the script, if your vision of the film as a cinematographer doesn’t match the script then the film could look amazing but not tell the story very well!

So let’s kick things off with the script;

Every time I read a script I am going to shoot, I break it down into what I consider the four most important parts;
-Action
This is what the characters in the script do, including movement and interaction, such as ‘FRANK walks into the office’.
-Dialogue
This is fairly obvious, it is what the characters say, such as ‘I’m glad you came.’
-Character
The bits of the script that give away the little bits of information about the characters’ mannerisms and persona, such as ‘bites his nails’.
-Mood
These are the bits of the script that set the scene, that give you an idea of how the character’s surroundings should look, such as ‘Office. Night’ and ‘peering into the darkness’.

I believe getting to grips with the script can really help you focus your thinking on a scene (and the film overall) and allows you to visualise what the camera does and doesn’t need to see. From here you can start to think about the best use of your filming location and therefore ‘block’ the actors.

Blocking means to ‘decide on the movement of actors in a location to tell the story through the film frame.’

Usually the actors’ blocking is run through with the Director and Cinematographer to decide the best placement for the actors and the camera. It is important to know your script before you start blocking as there may be elements of the script that affect how you use your location. For example, our short script outlines that once FRANK walks in he is ‘silhouetted by the light of the door’. Obviously, where you place the actors and camera will effect whether this is achievable or not.

We decided to block our actors as outlined below, allowing for FRANK to be silhouetted by the light of the door when he sits down and leaving enough room to get the camera in the right position to get the shot.

After the actors are blocked, and you have a rough idea where the camera is going to go, we need to make several camera and lighting decisions as a cinematographer to help tell the story.

Camera
Once the actors are blocked, and you have a rough idea of where the camera is going to go, I believe there are three key factors the effect where you exactly place the camera.

Shot selection
Shot selection refers to the frame size of the shots that cover the scene, i.e. how much we see on screen. To simply break down shot selection, we have three main frame sizes; wide shots, mid shots and closeup shots, as can be seen below. Each frame size refer to how much of the scene we can see on screen at one time. For example, in the close up below we can see the woman’s face filling the screen. In the mid shot we can see she is by a car, and in the wide shot we can see that she is stood by a body on the floor. We can use these different frame sizes to help focus the audiences attention on a particular area of the scene at each moment in time through the film.

For most scenes within a film the story is told with a combination of different shot sizes, all based around these three fundamentals.

For our short script, what do we feel is important to show at each given moment in the film? For instance, how would we know the room is dark if we started on a close up of FRANK standing at the door. Would we be able to portray JACK’s menacing manner if we had a wide shot of him for his dialogue, or would a mid shot or close up be more suitable? It is all very subjective, but these decisions always leads back to knowing the script well and being able to interpret the story.

For our scene we decided on the following shots; a mid shot to cover FRANK peering into the darkness, showing some of the room and the door. When FRANK sits down we decided on a close up showing him biting his nails, silhouetted by the door. And finally, to cover JACK’s line we will use a dirty mid shot over FRANK’s shoulder, which will help show the geography between JACK and FRANK and allow JACK to lean forward into the light, showing the darkness he has left.

Lens selection
Once you have an idea of what shots you want to use to cover a scene, lens selection can play a big part on where the camera is actually placed. Lens selection affects how much of the ‘background’ you can see in a given shot and is basically how ‘zoomed in’ the camera lens is. The images below show Berty the egg and his friend Betty. In each image we use an increasingly ‘zoomed in’ (longer) lens but keep Berty the same size in the frame by moving the camera back.

As you can see in the first image (with a wide lens) Betty looks quite far off in the distance, As the lens becomes more ‘zoomed in’ (longer) Betty becomes much bigger in the frame. This is due to the relative distance between Berty and Betty becoming less significant than the distance between Berty and the lens. For example, in the first shot on the 18mm lens the camera is within half a foot from Berty, where as Betty is about 1.5 feet from the camera. As we go to the 180mm lens Berty is around 4 foot from the camera and Betty about 5 feet from the camera.

Therefore, deciding on how ‘zoomed in’ the camera is, or how long a lens to use for a shot, can affect the composition of the frame, even if the main subject remains the same size in the frame. Given this, any length of lens can be used to achieve any of our three shot sizes discussed above.

The choice of lens for our short script will be discussed after camera movement.

Camera movement
As it says on the tin, camera movement refers to how the camera moves to cover the scene. There are basic movements available such as pan and tilt, which can easily be achieved with a tripod or even handheld. Then there are move advanced moves such as crab, track and crane that can be achieved with a range of different kit.

To read more about camera movement click here.

Camera movement can really help increase the production values of a film but shouldn’t be used to cover up bad direction or blocking! All camera movements need to be motivated, this means that the camera should not move unless something in the frame does, otherwise the audience will become aware they are watching a film (not so good!). Camera movement can be motivated by an actor moving, a car driving past or a glance from one actor to another.

This said, a combination of good lens selection, camera movement and actor movement can help achieve different shot sizes without having to ‘cut’ independent shots together in the edit. This is particularly helpful when you want a scene to flow seamlessly. It can also really help increase the production value of a film.

For our script we have already decided on what shots we want to cover the scene and in addition we know the actor movement, which involves FRANK walking in and sitting down, and then JACK leaning forward. Let’s start from the middle with the closeup of FRANK biting his nails. The first decision is do we use a long lens or wide lens for this shot? If we use a long lens the camera would have to be quite far away to see FRANK – have we got enough space to get that far back? Would we see enough background with that lens to see FRANK is silhouetted by the light of the door? If we used a wide lens we could be much closer to FRANK for him to fill the frame to the same amount but would we see too much of the room? One advantage of a wider lens would be that we could get the shot of FRANK at the door in the same shot by adding some simple camera movement, such as tilting. If we can get those two shots in the same take, can we get the shot of JACK from over FRANK’s shoulder in the same take too? How would we need to move the camera to achieve this? Now, if we were to track around from the side of FRANK to behind him we would see JACK. Would this move be motivated? Yes, as FRANK is walking in and JACK is leaning forward, as long as the tracking movement is in time with the actors’ movements it will appear seamless.

Now we have decided we can cover the whole scene with three shots all in the same take with some simple camera movement, the lens selection and exact camera placement is important to ensure the frame size of each shot is as required. This will probably require a little trial and error to get it correct but once it is you are good to go from a camera perspective!

Now it is worth noting that when you are covering a scene or even a large part of a scene with just one take, the timing of the actors is really important as this can determine the pace of the film. A good director will know what pace they want from the actors and will ‘direct’ accordingly. The less experienced directors and actors will normally have it play out a lot slower than it should for film, therefore it is worth running it through and playing a take back if you feel as the Cinematographer that the pacing isn’t correct, as this will be very difficult to correct in the edit!

Anyway, I think that is enough for one post… join me for the next post where I will cover the basic lighting aspects of story telling.

If you want to see how I make use of lens selection, camera movement and shot choice, check out my projects!