Get hold of a camcorder
One of the things that distinguishes outstanding film and video makers from mediocre ones is an intimate knowledge of what different camera lenses do – specifically, the different looks produced by different focal lengths. A real filmmaker knows exactly what things look like when framed through a given type of lens, and will instinctively know, for example, whether he/she wants to frame a 2-shot with a long lens or a wide one. If you are serious about learning the art of making films and developing a strong visual sense, you must learn to see the world through the camera lens.
It is therefore imperative for anyone who wants to learn filmmaking to get hold of a camcorder and experiment with different focal lengths, which can be done very easily by zooming in or out (the wide setting has the shortest focal length, whereas zooming in increases the focal length). You can buy a decent camcorder for reasonable prices these days, and the knowledge and experience you will gain will put you streets ahead of filmmakers who are clueless about lenses and are at the mercy of their DP when it comes to camerawork. You should buy a camcorder with an LCD screen, as they are a marvelous view-finding tool, especially when you’re walking around with the camera.
Learn about different focal lengths and the look they produce
Having equipped yourself with a camcorder, you can start experimenting. There is virtually no limit to what you can do, but try this exercise, which will be very useful to those who have just started on the path to making films or videos: take your camera and zoom back completely. You are now using the shortest focal length available on your camera. Walk around with the camera. Move towards objects, past them, and away from them.
Now zoom in all the way and repeat the exercise (you are now using the longest focal length on your camera). You will notice that the image is a lot more stable and smooth when using the wide setting; conversely, it is jerky when using a long focal length. This is why wide lenses are generally used in handheld work, or when the camera is mounted on a Steadicam or similar stabilizing rig. When the camera is mounted on a dolly, lenses at either end of the spectrum can be used. Very cool shots can be achieved by moving the camera fitted with a long lens. Michael Bay and James Cameron frequently employ such shots, particularly to confer some movement to otherwise static dialogue scenes. For an example, check out the scene in James Cameron’s “True Lies” where Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Arnold are talking on the street, right after Arnie visits his wife (Jamie Lee Curtis) at her workplace.
Aside from that, long lenses produce a fundamentally different look to wide lenses and experienced film and video makers instinctively know which focal length suits the particular subject being filmed.
Long lenses vs. wide lenses
Another fundamental difference between wide lenses and long lenses is how much background you see for a given framing. If you frame a close-up of an actress with a wide lens and then frame the close-up in the same way using a long lens, you will see that a lot more background is visible when using the wide lens. Try it!
Long lenses (also known as telephoto lenses) compress planes quite dramatically; the longer the lens, the more compressed the visual planes are. This is why, for example, if an actress walks towards a camera fitted with a long lens, the actress will appear to be walking on the spot. The actress will increase in size quite slowly as she walks towards the camera. Something else you will familiarize with by experimenting with a camera is kinematics: that is, how motion is rendered by different lenses. As mentioned above, both wide and long lenses (and everything in between) can be used in tracking shots; the feeling of motion will differ depending on the focal length of the lens being used.
Lenses are a vast subject and one that you can only master by experimenting with them in your own time. Having a comprehensive knowledge of lenses is vital to your development as a film or video maker. As you learn more about the art of filmmaking, you will develop your own visual style, your own way of seeing the world through the camera lens. You will also begin to spot other filmmakers’ preferences when you watch movies; Steven Spielberg, for example, uses a lot of wide lenses, whereas Michael Bay loves to use long lenses. Spielberg and Bay have an absolutely encyclopaedic knowledge of lenses and this is partly why their work is so distinctive. The camera is, ultimately, the crucial link between a filmmaker and the audience; become intimate with camera lenses and you are well on your way to becoming a visually compelling filmmaker.
The importance of experimenting with your camcorder
One of the most valuable activities you can engage in as a filmmaker is experimentation with a camcorder. It’s completely free (once you have the camcorder) and can lead to extremely interesting and useful discoveries that you can subsequently put to good use in your projects. Think of it as Research & Development for filmmakers.
You can make fascinating discoveries about color temperature, color in general, lighting, depth of field, focal length and camera movement just by playing around with your camcorder. I am not just talking about learning the basics of camerawork and focal length — I am referring to the myriad of advanced techniques that can make a big contribution to the value you bring to a project as a filmmaker. This is the sort of stuff that they simply cannot teach you in film school (the instructors are probably not even aware of these tricks).
If you don’t own or have access to a camcorder, you should endeavor to get hold of one as soon as possible, because as a filmmaker you spend far more time in between projects than actually shooting one, and what you do in that “downtime” makes all the difference to how skilled you will be when you’re actually shooting. This is particularly true in the first few years of your career.
You don’t need the most expensive camcorder on the market. If it has a decent zoom range you will be able to experiment with focal length. The other vital requirement is a decent flip-out LCD screen, which will allow you to develop a strong visual sense. This will be a far cheaper and smarter investment than attending film school — filmmaking is an art and a trade, not a subject, and honing your skills is a worthwhile long-term investment.
Become a camera-savvy filmmaker with these exercises
In this section I will describe some very specific and practical exercises that you can do with your camcorder in order to develop high-level camerawork skills. In fact, they are not just exercises – they are experiments that will start you on your path to becoming a highly camera-savvy filmmaker.
To perform these exercises and experiments you will need:
a) a camcorder with a decent zoom range (at least 10x) and a flip-out LCD screen;
b) two friends – but you can also use toy figures or anything else you can get hold of.
Okay, let’s get started!
1) Take your camcorder and zoom out completely. This is the shortest focal length and it has the widest field of view. Frame a close-up of one of your friends. A very nice close-up framing goes from halfway down the forehead to just above the shoulders. Take special note of how your friend’s head looks relative to the background. In other words, check out the perspective of this framing. You can even record this footage or take a still shot, so that you can refer to it later for comparative purposes.
Now zoom in completely. You are now using the longest focal length and the narrowest field of view. Frame your friend in exactly the same close-up as before – to do this, you will need to take several steps back in order to compensate for the magnification produced by the zoom. Now compare your friend’s face to the background once again. Your friend’s faces is framed in exactly the same way but the background looks very different now, doesn’t it? Take your time to observe how this shot differs from the previous one.
2) Now zoom out completely again to use the shortest focal length, frame your friend in a close-up again and move around him/her in a circular fashion, keeping the head framed all the time. As you do this, notice how the background is moving in the frame.
Now zoom in all the way to use the longest focal length and repeat the exercise: frame your friend in a close-up, and move in a circle around him/her while keeping the model framed in exactly the same way. The background will now be behaving in a very different way to when you were using the shortest focal length – it is a very dramatic effect. Observe it carefully, repeat the exercise several times and familiarise with this look.
3) Repeat Exercise 2, but this time, with each focal length, instead of moving around your friend in a circle, start with a medium shot (from head to waist) and move in on him/her to end up on a close-up.I suggest you do this with (a) the shortest focal length and (b) a medium focal length (let’s say 50-70% of maximum zoom).
In both shots you start from a medium shot and move in to end up with a close-up, but again the results are dramatically different with each focal length. For the avoidance of doubt, in this exercise you are physically moving in towards your friend to go from the medium shot to the close-up – you are not zooming in during the shot (in all of the exercises described in this post you only use the zoom to set the focal length, and never actually zoom in during the shot).
4) Position your friends standing up, facing each other, approximately 6 feet (2 m) from each other. Zoom out completely to use the shortest focal length. Now frame your two friends in a 2-shot, which means they are both in the frame. Get behind one of them, so that one is facing you and the other is facing away from you. You can try a loose 2-shot in which both friends are fully visible, or you can try an over-the-shoulder shot in which you frame one of your friends over the shoulder of the other. Having set up the shot, pay attention to the relative sizes of your two friends in the frame.
Now zoom in to increase the focal length. You can zoom in completely or 70% of the way – it depends on the zoom range of your camcorder and the nature of the location. Having increased the focal length, take a few steps back to compensate for it and frame the shot in approximately the same way as before. It’s still a 2-shot, but it looks very different now, doesn’t it?
How does the relative size of your two friends in the frame differ with this focal length relative to the shorter focal length?
5) Repeat everything you did in Exercise 3, but this time, in addition, move towards your friends slowly, so that you go from a wide 2-shot to a tighter 2-shot. A wonderful way to do this is to start off with the friend closest to the camera framed from the chest up, and ending up with a tight over-the-shoulder shot. Repeat this track-in shot with a longer focal length. For a real example of this type of shot, take a look at the Ray Ban spec spot on my reel. The first shot — which takes up most of the spot — is a medium focal length track-in 2-shot.
They are both track-in two-shots, but the movement on screen looks dramatically different with each focal length.
Pay attention to just how different they look and consider the issue of when you might use each look for different purposes.
These five exercises make a very strong start, and you will surely think of many of your own variations. This is not about following a formal protocol; this is about using your camcorder to see the world through lenses of varying focal lengths, which is very different to seeing it with your own eyes.
As I wrote above, you can use any pair of objects in this exercise – the principles remain essentially the same – but if you manage to get a couple of friends to help you, you will also be achieving the additional purpose of practising framing real people, which is ultimately what you will mostly be doing in your films and videos.
If you follow this path, you will become an incredibly sophisticated and camera-savvy filmmaker.There are many outstanding cinematographers who absolutely love working with directors who really understand lenses.
Enjoy the exercises – you will never see the world in the same way again once you develop a filmmaker’s eye!