Cinematographer's Guide: Essential Camera Angles, Shots and Movements.

Cinematographer’s Guide: Essential Camera Angles, Shots and Movements.

May 18, 2020

Copyright © Sacha Cohen.

  • Shweta Raman
  • DOP, Camera Movements, Motivation, Technical, Camera Angeles, POV Shots, Psychology, 2020

Throughout the years, filmmakers have developed an arsenal of cinematic devices to direct the viewer’s minds while watching films.

Hitchcock was one of the 20th century’s greatest practitioners of such “mind-directing.”

He once declared to Francois Truffaut that he was more than a film director, that he was instead an audience director. Regarding his work on Psycho, he said he was “playing the audience like an organ.” The fact that Hitchcock was able to orchestrate the responses of so many different brain regions, turning them on and off at the same time across all viewers, may provide neuroscientific evidence for his notoriously famous ability to master and manipulate them. According to Hitchcock “the creation of suspense is brain surgery”. Hitchcock often liked to tell interviewers that for him “creation is based on an exact science of audience reactions.”

This week, we are taking our readers on a journey to understand how camera movements can add value and meaning to your story, and how it impacts your audience psychologically.

The camera has a voice too, and hence there is information in the movement itself. Each and every shot is crafted by the filmmaker, keeping in mind the emotions that he or she is trying to communicate. Every decision they make will have a certain effect, and it is important to know and be intentional with every cinematic choice before filming. Each camera movement works as an add on tool for the cinematographer in their storytelling process. This leads the viewers to interpret the events unfolding on-screen. Camera movements could help build up drama, curiosity, and gain the viewer’s interest subconsciously, making the audience’s minds like virtual puppets in the hands of a filmmaker.

Now that we’re clear that the camera’s interaction with the scene dictates the way your audience feels, let’s answer a few questions that will help us achieve the same. How do you want your audience to react through each scene? Do you want them to feel disoriented? Detached? Should the story feel serene, off-balance or static? Do you focus on sweeping grandeur or small details? Different shots convey different tones to a scene; answering these questions first will help decide what types of shots you should use. Moving from long to close shots is a trade-off between showing informative visuals or intimate emotions. You can’t have more of one without giving up an equal amount of the other. Starting at the extreme long shot, actors are made very small as compared to their surroundings, but this is where you establish the scene and its elements. It is also where you can express yourself visually using the patterns in scenery and shadows you are afforded at this range. At the opposite end is extreme close-up that puts the characters emotions front and center. There is less contextual information at this range, but at this proximity to a subject, the emotional intensity can be powerful.

Let’s take a closer look at different types of shots and how they can set the tone for a scene:

Extreme Long Shot: Typically used to show subjects of relatively massive scale. Picture a mountain climber represented as a tiny speck against a vast expanse of snow, the extreme long shot conveying the relative insignificance of the character struggling against the environment. It is mostly used to establish a scene or location.

Medium Long Shot: Falling between the long and close shots, this is more informative than emotional. It is too close for the epic scale of a long shot and too far to convey the intimacy of a close up, making it emotionally neutral.

Medium Shot: The medium shot is where we are starting to engage with the character on a personal level. It is an approximation of how close someone would be when having a casual conversation.

Close- Up: More intimate than the medium shot, the expressions and emotions of an actor are more visible and focused. It is meant for the audience to engage the character in a direct and personal manner. You are starting to lose visual information about the characters surroundings, but the characters actions are more intimate and impacting.

Extreme Close-Up: For amplifying emotional intensity, the extreme close up puts the camera right in the actors face, making even their smallest emotional cues huge- and raises the intensity of the problems behind them. This works for objects too: the ticking hands of a clock, a bullet shell hitting the floor, the blinking cursor of a computer terminal. What the extreme close-up lacks in context, it makes up for by taking a small event and making it enormous.

Dutch Angle: Tilting the camera gives a subtle cue that something about the scene is unstable or just a little bit off-killer. This effect shows the unbalanced mental or emotional state of the character, or to make the scene feel somehow unsettling.

Bird’s Eye Shot: Similar to the extreme long shot, this starts to get into the abstract realm of shapes and lines. It is an opportunity to be completely divorced from character, and let the shape of a grove of trees, the tangle of a freeway overpass, or the grid of city lights on a clear night dizzle the viewer.

Now that you know what kinds of information these shots give your audience, think about how each of them fit together to compose your scene. For example, using wide shots can make your scene feel distant and impersonal or grand and epic in scale; moving in very close to the action gets your audience invested in the characters and what’s happening to them, but at the cost of disorienting them in visual space.

As the cinematographer, it is also very important to decide what kind of ‘character’ your camera is. Does it have an objective or subjective viewpoint of the scene? Is it a passive observer or is it close to the action? Once you start thinking of the camera as its own character, you’ll find this will dictate the shots you use. An objective camera is that of a third-party observer, like you watching a scene play out. When picking your shots, ask yourself which character interests you. What do you think is important to pay attention to?

For example, watch this video of filmmakers blending from subjective to objective

Perspectives: Objective V/S Subjective

A subjective camera takes the point of view of one of the characters, and you witness the scene through their eyes. Whereas, an objective approach can have different perspectives on the same event. The audience views what is happening as an unseen observer.

These basic lessons should get you thinking like a cinematographer. Treat your camera as another character in the scene, exercise proper framing of subjects, try different camera angles and use the various types of shots to set the tone of your scene. By understanding the language of visual storytelling, you will open up a whole new dimension to your films.

Camera movements are very basic. We can move the camera up or down, right or left. The director, with these basic movements, creates different emotions depending on the requirement of the scene.

On Camera Movements:

Pan: This involves moving the camera in a horizontal direction to the right or left. To create a pan it is recommended using a tripod. It is used to give the effect of looking from left to right or the other way around, as if the camera was our eyes. It is also used to track a character in any action; it gives the impression that the screen is wide. This allows us to see more things from the same place.

Tilt: It is used to move the camera in a vertical direction; this movement is less used than pan. Depending on the impression that is wanted to show, one would tilt the camera faster or slower. Eg: In a movie where there are a lot of actions, the tilt movement will be very quick. The tilt from down to up is used to exalt the subject, however, from up to down has the opposite effect.

Off Camera Movements:

Dolly Shots: A dolly shot is something that provides movement. It is required to put the camera on a mobile platform. With this technique it is possible to achieve different camera movements. It is possible because while we are moving with the dolly, the camera also has its own movements. This resource is used to go along the action with the camera, giving a more realistic sensation of movement. Eg: When an actor walks and runs, the camera follows him at the same speed.

Hand-Held Shot: A hand held shot is filming with the camera in hand, following the action movements. This is possible because of the steadicam that stabilizes the image. This system is used to give more realism, suspense and the effect of seeing the same POV as the actor. This gives the psychological feeling to the audience as if they were in the movie. This movement is often used in documentaries.

Crane Shots: To achieve this movement, the camera is put in a crane. With this technique, one can get various high shots, creating different effects. It can also be used when one wants to create a suspense or emotional scene. On other occasions, it is used to view the actors from above or to move up and away from them, a common way of ending a movie.

Zoom Lens: This movement is made by moving just the lens and not the camera. The objective of this movement is to make the zoom in and out of the image we want to view. It is used to give a sense similar to the approach of the eye.

Bullet Time Movement: This movement is quite new, it is more used since the 90s. The bullet time is created by placing many cameras within a small distance, in the form of an arc; this is used to capture the same subject, at the same time but from different angles. This technique is used very often in science fiction movies, all images captured at 24 frames per second gives us a slow-motion effect that is used to create a sense of drama.

The important lesson here is understanding these useful techniques and how each of them can help you make informed decisions on how to tell your stories visually and produce the response you want from your viewer.

We hope this article motivates and helps you to give your camera a voice!


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