Following my filmmaking tips and my post on how to direct, this post will look at some nitty-gritty film techniques that every filmmaker needs to have in the toolbox. Some of these techniques are very basic and others are more advanced, but you should always bear in mind that, as James Cameron once said, “there is no such thing as an easy shot.” The more you shoot, the more you realize just how right he is. Even a simple tilt shot requires good technique and coordination between the camera operator, director and actors to bring it up to the next level!
1. Over-the-shoulder shots
(Over-the-shoulder shot example taken from a TV spot I directed.)
Over-the-shoulder shots are just what the name says: a shot with an actor’s shoulder in the foreground, out of focus. I will tell you right away that good over-the-shoulder shots are some of the most time-consuming to shoot correctly, because you need to make sure that there is neither too much nor too little shoulder in the frame. However, in my opinion no serious filmmaker can afford not to learn this technique because it is narratively essential in many cases. Some directors openly say that they never shoot over-the-shoulder shots precisely because it takes ages to get the look they want and frequently can’t do it at all, but in my opinion they are missing out.
From a narrative point of view, over-the-shoulder shots draw the viewer in by creating a sense of intimacy, depending on how much of the screen area the shoulder in the foreground occupies. As I wrote above, the key to making the shot work is to get exactly the right amount of shoulder in the shot. The way to do this is to work with the actor over whose shoulder you are shooting to make sure that he/she is leaning into the shot by exactly the right amount. It takes practice, and is one of those uncelebrated but essential film techniques that even the most experienced directors don’t always have. I always take my time to frame the perfect over-the-shoulder shot in my work and it is worth the effort, and the actors appreciate the final results. Read my detailed guide on how to frame over-the-shoulder shots.
2. Tilt shots
(Tilt Shot example taken from a music video I directed.)
Tilting up or down is one of the simplest camera techniques there are. Due to its simplicity it tends to be overused and/or poorly executed. The truth is that well-executed tilting, combined with some interesting action and with perfect coordination between the camera operator and the action, can be incredibly elegant in their simplicity. If you want to see further examples of tilt shots and the circumstances that make them appropriate, check out pretty much any film by Steven Spielberg, especially “Schindler’s list.”
Recommended best practices for the execution of good tilt shots:
– Set up the shot in such a way that you can tilt straight up or down, without mixing it with panning. If you can set up the shot in this way, you can lock off the panning axis of your fluid head so that it can only tilt and not pan. This will make the tilt shot very pure and elegant. Obviously there are certain circumstances in which tilting combined with panning — a diagonal movement — is the best option. What I’m saying here is that you should not mix tilting with panning just because you failed to set up the shot properly. If you are tilting up or down to move from one subject to another along the vertical axis, set up the shot in such a way that you can execute it with the panning axis completely locked off.
– Tilt shots (and panning shots) should be executed smoothly and confidently, without overshooting the final frame and then backtracking clumsily to re-establish framing, unless of course you actually want that look. It is perfectly possible to do a whip-tilt — a very fast tilt from one framing to another — with an instant lock-off and very precise framing, but you will need a highly competent and experienced camera operator. For ambitious film work, experienced camera operators are worth every penny and essential to realizing the director’s vision.
3. Panning shots
(Panning Shot example taken from my first film.)
Panning the shot is the horizontal equivalent of tilt shots. Like tilt shots, panning shots are conceptually simple and therefore usually overused and/or poorly executed. Exactly the same best-practice considerations made for the tilt shots apply to panning shots: try and design them in such a way that you can lock off the tilt axis in order to keep the panning pure, and hire a competent camera operator, especially if your shots require precise timing and framing accuracy. Once again I will refer you to any of Steven Spielberg’s films as an excellent source of well-executed panning shots, that are so well-motivated and well-executed as to be almost unnoticeable (because they draw you into the story as opposed to distracting you from it).
4. Zoom shots
(Zoom Shot example taken from my first film.)
Zoom shots are extremely cool if you get them right and successfully blend them into your directorial style. Zooming was massively out of favor in the 1990s, and enjoyed a revival when Ridley Scott’s career really took off in the early noughties with “Gladiator” and “Hannibal,” both of which have outstanding examples of Ridley-Scott-style zoom shots. The way to make zoom shots truly effective and “creepy” is to make them absolutely smooth and not too fast. If you’re wondering how Ridley Scott achieves his distinctive zoom shots, that is how it’s done. If the zoom is jerky, you will get the cheesy 1970s look.
Ridley-Scott-style zoom shots are incredibly cool, and you should never let a film school professor or anyone like that dissuade you from experimenting with them. Remember that you cannot become a truly competent filmmaker without making some cheesy mistakes in your early efforts!
5. Tracking shots: sideways camera movement
(Tracking Shot example taken from a music video I directed.)
Setting up tracking shots is more complicated than setting up tilt or panning shots, but ultimately anyone can mount the camera on a dolly and moved the dolly along tracks. Moving the camera on the dolly does not a great tracking shot make — it takes a little more directorial flair than that! Here are some recommended best practices based on my own experience and on the many films I have watched:
– For a truly visually dynamic tracking shot, foreground objects located between the camera and the main subject are essential. Foreground objects will enhance parallax, which is the visual effect in which objects closer to the frame appear to be moving faster in the field of view than those that are more distant. Check out any sideways tracking shot in a Steven Spielberg movie and you will notice this effect.
– Due to the parallax effect, anything behind the subject in the distance will be moving across the frame more slowly and therefore contribute less to the feeling of motion. A notable exception is very fast sideways tracking shots in which the camera is mounted on a process vehicle following another car or someone on horseback, for example. Due to the very fast tracking, a very nice effect is achieved whereby the various planes in the background move at different velocities across the screen due to their varying distance from the camera. The perfect example of this is the shot in Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” in which he was galloping at full speed across barren Italian countryside on his way back to Rome. There are no foreground objects in the shot, but the feeling of motion is enhanced by the background of the shot. Pay attention the next time you watch the scene and you’ll never see it in the same way again!
– For truly professional results, there is simply no substitute for using a real dolly (such as the PeeWee dolly) operated by a professional dolly grip. I have used both lightweight “prosumer” dollies like the Doorway dolly and heavy professional dollies like the PeeWee, and I’m telling you that there is simply no comparison, especially in the hands of a talented dolly grip!
– Again, there is more to shooting good tracking shots than simply moving the dolly with the camera on it. By all means experiment with lightweight dollies on your early films, but sooner or later you will have to move on to a PeeWee-like dolly if you really want the results you hope for.
– The choice of focal length is very important in tracking shots. There is a misconception that only the widest lenses should be used in tracking shots, but this is quite simply untrue. Even Steven Spielberg, who is undoubtedly the master of wide lenses, frequently uses long lenses in his tracking shots. If you do not understand the effect of focal length on the look of the shot, you really need to read my post on how to learn camerawork and develop your own visual sense.
6. Crane shots
(Crane Shot example taken from my first film.)
Cranes are used to achieve vertical translational motion. Whenever you see the camera moving up or down by more than a few feet in a film, it was done with a jib or crane. The bad news is that cranes are expensive and require specialized operators; the good news is that they are rarely needed and almost never indispensable. Nevertheless, well-executed, well-motivated crane shots can add production value to a production and can definitely improve your reel if they were used to enhance the storytelling rather than to show off random skills. For camcorders and cameras up to 25 pounds, the Cobra Crane II is very affordable and produces amazing results (I shot the example above with a Cobra Crane II). If you’re interested, you should check out my Cobra Crane II review.
My personal opinion is that you should focus your budget and your energy on shooting really good tracking shots, as they are needed much more frequently than crane shots and don’t cost as much to execute.
7. Track-in shots
(Track-in Shot example taken from a music video I directed.)
In a track-in shot the camera moves in on the subject. For best results a Dolly should be used: a Steadicam is really not suited to this kind of shot, unless the ground is uneven and there is no other viable option. The example above was filmed using a dolly.
8. Track-in shots with secondary foreground object
A variant of the clean track-in shot involves a foreground object. The significance of this foreground object is that, since it is closer to the camera than the main subject, it increases in size faster than the main subject as the camera moves in. This gives the shot an enhanced three-dimensional illusion. As with all foreground objects, this shot works best when the foreground object is out of focus. The example shown above is taken from a TV spot I directed, and the foreground object in this case is a computer screen.
9. Over-the-shoulder track-in shot
This combines tracking in on the main subject with an over-the-shoulder framing. The example shown above is taken from a TV commercial I directed.
Over-the-shoulder track-in shots work best with medium focal lengths — the example above was filmed with an 85mm Zeiss Ultra Prime lens mounted on a RED One camera.
If the focal lens length is much shorter than 85mm, the foreground shoulder will dominate over the main subject; if the focal length is significantly longer than 85mm, the feeling of motion towards the subject is mostly lost. In my experience the sweet spot is a focal length between 85mm and 100mm.
10. Dutch angles
A Dutch angle is a shot that is rotated about the camera axis, resulting in tilted verticals. The image below, taken from a music video I directed, is an example of a Dutch angle:
Dutch angles are used to elicit a sense of unease and disorientation in the viewer. In music videos anything goes, but in narrative filmmaking, Dutch angles should be used sparingly, reserving them for the rare occasions in which they are narratively appropriate.
11. Mixing focal lengths in a scene to make one character dominate over the other
When covering a scene with shots and reverse shots, it is good practice to use exactly the same lens for the two complementary shots. If you use a 25mm lens to frame an over-the-shoulder shot, the reverse shot should also use a 25mm lens.
There is one important exception to the rule of using the same focal length for complementary shots. If two characters are talking and you cover the scene with complementary over-the-shoulder shots and you want to make one character look a lot more dominant than the other, you can use a wide lens (short focal length) when shooting over the shoulder of the dominant character, and a significantly longer lens when shooting over the shoulder of the other character. As a result of the short focal length, when you film over the shoulder of the dominant character, he will dominate the frame because he will look much larger than the other character.
Conversely, when you use the long lens with the reverse over-the-shoulder shot, the character in the foreground will not dominate the other character, because their relative sizes will be similar (this is because the camera will be further away from them to achieve the same framing, thereby reducing the difference in their relative sizes in the frame).
So far I have only seen this technique used in Steven Spielberg’s films. The technique is illustrated below:
This technique only works if the two lenses have very different focal lengths: for example, 25mm for the wide lens and at least 100mm for the longer lens. If the difference is slight, there will be enough difference to make it look messy, but not enough to make one of the characters look dominant, so you lose on both counts.
I hope you found this post useful! 🙂