Improving your camerawork skills and, as an indirect benefit, sharpening your ability to get the results you want from your crew quickly — that is what this post is about. I will describe some exercises that you can do to move towards those goals.
As with my editing exercises, all you will need is a camera (any model will do) and a couple of cooperative friends to stand in as actors.
Note: all focal lengths in this post refer to 35mm gauge cameras — in other words, the movie lenses that were used on 35mm motion picture film cameras (remember them?). If you will be using a simple camcorder, please take “short focal length” to mean “wide end of the zoom” and “long focal length” to mean “longer end of the zoom.” Don’t get hung up on that issue, and for heaven’s sake don’t think you need to buy a new camera for these exercises.
1. Framing close-ups
Pre-requisite knowledge: my suggested best practices on framing close-ups.
Participants: two actors.
Take your camera and a friend and practise framing your friend with the following shot sizes:
– Close-up (from halfway down the forehead to just above the shoulders)
– Extreme close-up (from the point halfway between the chin and the lower lip to the point just above the eyebrows).
The key here is that your friend/actor should be talking and also doing something, such as moving objects around on a table.
Your task is to:
– maintain framing while the subject’s face is moving, and
– practise getting good framing quickly. Hence you should be able to disrupt the framing by pointing the camera elsewhere and then re-establish the original framing quickly.
In this exercise it does not matter whether the camera is hand-held or mounted on a tripod — the key here is the development of an instinctive feel for:
(a) what constitutes good framing;
(b) how to set up that framing quickly;
(c) how that framing can be maintained while the subject moves around.
This may seem like a very simple exercise, but practical experience shows that upwards of 95% of filmmakers could benefit from this exercise, whether they appreciate this truth or not. Even the most famous musicians have to keep practising on their instrument; I submit that filmmakers are not above this process.
The above exercise has been a huge success for you if it alerts you to the fact that, like any skill, there is always a lot to discover in the art of framing a good close-up!
2. Close-up of short focal length vs. long focal length – with multiple objects in the background
Participants: three actors
Setup: One actor stands in the foreground and the two actors stand in the background.
Frame a close-up of the foreground subject with a lens of short focal length (I suggest 25mm; use the wide end of the zoom if that’s all you have).
The significance of this exercise is that when a subject is framed in close-up with a lens of short focal length, a lot of background is visible — much more background than would be visible if you framed the subject with a longer lens. Hence in this case both background subjects will be visible, they will look small in the frame relative to the foreground subject, and will not be too blurred (of course this depends on the gauge you are using and on how close you get to the foreground subject).
Next, without moving the actors, frame the foreground subject in exactly the same way as you did earlier, but this time with a lens of long focal length – I suggest 135mm. If all you have is a camcorder, simply use the longer end of the zoom (but not at its longest setting).
Now take careful note of the differences between the shots framed with the two lenses. How do the background subjects look now, relative to the foreground subject?
You will notice that the background subjects are now a lot larger in the frame than they looked before, although obviously they will still look somewhat smaller than the foreground subject. You should also notice that they are more blurred, because the depth of field is shallower with this focal length.
When you use a lens of short focal length, the foreground dominates over the background: the foreground subject looks significantly larger than the background subjects, and it will also increase in size a lot faster if the camera moves towards it (see Exercise 4 below).
Conversely, when you use a lens of long focal length, it tends to have a compressive visual effect that reduces the difference in size between the foreground and background subjects. This is because using a long focal length forces you to put the camera further away, which results in a proportionately greater reduction in the apparent size of the foreground relative to the background.
The verbally oriented among you will appreciate what that last paragraph means — but regardless of whether you get along well with words or not, all of you should actually DO this exercise in real life and see for yourselves.
3. Framing over-the-shoulder shots with wide and long lenses; maintaining framing as the subjects move
Pre-requisite knowledge: my recommended best practices on framing over-the-shoulder shots.
Participants: two actors.
Use a 25mm lens (“wide”) and frame one of your subjects over the shoulder of the other. Use my recommended best practices to start you off, but by all means tweak things and develop your own style.
What do you notice about the relative sizes and visual dominance of the shoulder in the foreground versus the subject in the background with this focal length?
Now use a 135mm lens and frame that shot again. You are now confronted with a choice: you either maintain the size of the main subject in the background constant, or you maintain the size of the shoulder in the foreground constant. Either way, this will have consequences for the relative sizes of the two subjects in the frame. How does that change?
Even more important question: when would you use one focal length and when would you use the other? How does lens choice affect the mood, texture and the dynamics between the two subjects in this kind of shot?
Practise, experiment, and give careful thought to those questions.
Additional Exercise: Maintaining framing while the subjects move
Frame an over-the-shoulder shot with your friends with a hand-held camera. Instruct them to tell each other a few jokes while they move around. Your task is to maintain good framing while they move.
The footage will be shaky, but the point here is that it will greatly develop your framing skills. Record the footage and study it after the session. Do this more than once! My parents were the bemused subjects when I did this exercise myself. Happy days!
Practise the above exercise for each of following variants:
(a) short distance between the subjects + wide lens (short focal length);
(b) short distance between the subjects + medium lens;
(c) more distance between the subjects + wide lens;
(d) more distance between the subjects + medium lens.
Training significance of this exercise: it will develop your feel for over-the-shoulder shots, enabling you to direct excellent framing quickly and efficiently when shooting a real project. Directors who can shoot high-quality work quickly are highly sought after!
4. Track-in shots with long vs. medium lenses
Participants: one actor.
Mount a wide lens (25mm again) on the camera and walk towards the subject, ending on a tight close-up. You might have to follow focus, which is in itself a healthy exercise, even if as a director you will never touch the focus knob on a real shoot.
Like all exercises, you should do this repeatedly. Try different speeds and different angles.
You may also want to give your actors something interesting to do. For example, you might want to start with the actor kneeling down, framed in a wide shot, slowly getting up while you move in, ending on the close-up as the actor stands. Experiment, be creative, enjoy!
Now repeat the exercise with the medium lens — I recommend 85mm.
They are both legitimate track-in shots, but they have very different moods and rhythms.
As you practise these shots with a 25mm and 85mm lenses, give serious thought to when you would prefer one focal length over the other for a track-in shot. For highly skilled filmmakers, this choice is never arbitrary, but is motivated by narrative and visual considerations. You too can learn this special language — if you put in the hours of practice!
Why does a director need to know all this stuff?
The fundamental premise here is that a top-notch film director has total mastery over lenses.
If we accept that premise, it follows that to direct the camera department competently, a filmmaker needs to understand how shots work and how good framing is achieved — and indeed what good framing looks like! The only way to develop these skills is to pick up a camera and experiment.
I appreciate the fact that you are reading my article – I greatly appreciate it — but ultimately you have to do these exercises in real life and train your eyes to see the world cinematically. There is no substitute for the developmental processes of learning and artistic maturation.
Enjoy the learning process, which is in itself a fascinating journey. These exercises will help open your eyes to how movie lenses and cinema really work; you might even catch the filmmaking bug, although I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy 😉
Good luck, and let me know how you get on!