The Camera – A Tool for Selective Vision and Storytelling on the Millennium Stage

Primary Source: The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video, by Tom Schroeppel

SELECTIVITY ON THE MILLENNIUM STAGE

THE CAMERA

Your viewer will see only what you decide to show her. This selectivity is the basis of all camerawork. When you’re shooting a live performance, the decisions that you make as a camera operator and/or director will shape the reality of the performance as perceived by your viewers. Leave Performer A out of your frame and for your viewer he will never exist. Include B and C in a number of shots and they become important persons. By choosing what to shoot and how to shoot it, you create your own selective narrative of the performance. How close your story comes to reality depends on your camera/directing skills and how you use them.

THE TRIPOD

To appreciate a good composition, the viewer must first see it without distractions. One of the most common distractions is camera jiggle caused by shaky hand-holding of the camera. Shaky pictures make it harder for the viewer to see what’s happening and remind him of the camera–they destroy the illusion that he’s seeing the real thing. A good tripod, preferably with a fluid head and properly balanced, will give you a steady frame, make your camera moves smoother, and keep your arms and the rest of your body from getting tired so quickly.

COMPOSITION

RULE OF THIRDS

The idea is to mentally divide the frame into thirds horizontally and vertically. Then you place your elements along the lines, preferably with the center of interest at one of the four points where the lines cross.

rule_of_thirds

With the rule of thirds, you place people’s eyes on the top 1/3 line.

rule_of_thirds_lights

Another great use of the rule of thirds.

BREATHING ROOM (NEGATIVE SPACE or “WHITE SPACE“)

Breathing room or negative space is the area which surrounds the main subject in your image (the main subject is known as the “positive space”). Negative space defines and emphasizes the main subject, drawing your eye to it. It helps us understand what we’re seeing because it separates information and helps create hierarchy. It gives your eyes somewhere to rest and prevents your image from appearing too cluttered. Psychologically, we require negative space for comfort’s sake.

negative_none

No one likes to be boxed in. Your subject needs room to breathe.

negative_too_much

But not quite this much room. You still want to “fill the frame” with your subject.

negative_good2

This is a good amount of breathing room.

negative_good

This also works nicely. And the angle pulls the two subjects a little closer together in the frame.

DON’T CUT PEOPLE OFF AT THE JOINTS

When framing people, don’t cut them off at the joints – elbows, wrists, fingers, waist, knees, ankles, toes. Cutting someone off at a joint makes them look dismembered and out of balance. Psychologically, it feels like they’re being amputated.

cut_waist_wrist

This poor fellow was cut off at the waist and wrists. He’s so angry that he wrote a slam poem about it.

money_shot

The best places to crop people are at the mid-chest, stomach, thigh, and calf. This is a money shot.

head-to-toe

Always include people’s feet and hands in a full head-to-toe shot.

dance

Give dancers a little more room in your frame in case they raise their arms high above their head or jump.

head_cut

Sometimes, it works to crop off the top of someone’s head in a very tight face shot.

head_cut2

But don’t do this with a full head-to-toe shot.

BALANCE – LEADING LOOKS

One of the most common errors is the failure to leave enough space in front of people’s faces when they’re looking to one side or the other.

no_looking_room

Psychologically, the viewer perceives the person as boxed in, with no place to go.

looking_room

By moving the frame a little, you get a more comfortable composition. You’ve allowed for the compositional weight of the look.

looking_room_guitar

Almost everything has a “looking direction” (not just people). Here, the guitar is “looking” to the right.

BALANCE – MASSES

Sometimes you see a scene with a large object on one side and nothing significant on the other side. Even though it doesn’t look at that bad, you still feel a little uneasy about it. That’s because it’s off balance in terms of mass. This is most pleasantly corrected by placing a smaller object at some distance away within the frame. Visual leverage then balances the two nicely. You can balance with another object the same size in the frame, but it usually ends up kind of static and unexciting.

BALANCE – COLORS

Bright colors attract the viewer’s eye. Try to arrange your frame so that the brightest area is also the area your want the viewer to look at first. When you do include a bright object in your frame, remember that its brightness gives it extra weight in the composition; balance it with another bright area or large object.

bright

Your eye goes first to the little girl’s dress and then the piano.

ANGLES

Reality has three physical dimensions: height, width, and depth. In pictures, we only have two dimensions: height and width. To give the illusion of depth, we show things at an angle, so we can at least see two sides.

The angle created by the difference in height between the camera and the subject makes a definite impression on the viewer:
1) When the camera and subject are at the same height, it gives the feeling that the viewer and the subject are of equal value.
2) When the camera is higher than the subject, it gives the feeling that the subject is inferior, smaller, less important.
3) When the camera is lower than the subject, it gives the feeling that the subject is superior, larger, more important.

FRAMES WITHIN THE FRAME

Often you can make a picture more interesting by using elements of your location to create full or partial frames within the camera frame.

This type of framing can also be used to hide or obstruct unwanted elements.

LEADING LINES

A nice way to direct the viewer’s eye to your subject is through the use of leading lines that draw your viewer’s eye to a certain place.

BACKGROUND

The best background is the one that stays where it belongs–in the background. Move the camera, subject, or both to avoid distracting backgrounds, or use a more shallow depth of field to throw the background out of focus while leaving the subject sharp.

SHOT TYPES

The idea behind a shot sequence is to break up one long scene into several shorter scenes. This makes the story more interesting for the viewer. It also gives us the opportunity to vary the length and emphasis of the story as we desire.

WIDE SHOT or ESTABLISHING SHOT

A shot that’s wide enough to establish your subject in the mind of the viewer. It doesn’t have to show everything–just everything that’s important.

Wide Shot-Group

A WIDE SHOT of a group would likely include the whole stage.

Wide Shot-Piano

A WIDE SHOT of a solo pianist would cover a smaller area of the stage.

MEDIUM SHOT and CLOSE-UP

The MEDIUM SHOT and CLOSE-UP are, like the WIDE SHOT, endlessly variable, depending on your subject and your own point of view.

shot_close-up

Essentially, your CLOSE-UP (CU) is the tightest, the closest you choose to be  to your subject. In a person, it’s usually a full head shot.

shot_medium_guitar

With an instrument, the CLOSE-UP usually just includes the area around the musicians hands.

shot_xcu

The EXTREME CLOSE-UP (XCU) takes you even tighter into the action. It can be a very interesting viewpoint, but use it sparingly and don’t stay on this shot very long in a sequence; otherwise, it can become disorienting for the viewer.

shot_medium

The MEDIUM SHOT falls somewhere in between the WIDE SHOT and the CLOSE-UP.

ONE-SHOT, TWO-SHOT, THREE-SHOT

Whether you’re framing a one-shot, two-shot, or three-shot, the same rules of composition apply. Consider the rule of thirds, negative space, balance, and cropping.

bad_2-shot

An uncomfortable two-shot — the bassist has been cut in half, and the composition is out of balance (weighted too heavily on the left).

good_2-shot-c

BETTER: The bassist is fully present and the image is nicely balanced.

good_3-shot

A good three-shot of this group.

CAMERA MOVES

A camera move should have purpose. It should in some way contribute to the viewer’s understanding of what he’s seeing. If it doesn’t, the move distracts and calls attention to itself.

The basic camera moves are ZOOMS, PANS, TILTS, and combinations thereof.

A ZOOM-IN (from a wide shot to a close-up) directs the viewer’s attention to whatever it is we’re zooming in on. So, if you zoom in, try to zoom in on something interesting or important. A zoom-in from a wide angle takes the viewer into the action or performer.

A ZOOM-OUT (from close-up to wide shot) usually reveals new information. Often it tells us where we are. Be careful with using zoom-outs, as they can create a sense of “leaving” the action or performer. They are best used from close-up or extreme close-up starting points, or at the end of a song/performance to signal a break in the action.

PANS (horizontal moves) and TILTS (vertical moves) also reveal new information. When in doubt, pan a little slower.

MAKING CAMERA MOVES

  • Begin and end every move with a well-composed static shot. Know your starting point and ending point before making your move.
  • Move from an uncomfortable position to a comfortable position.
  • When combining a zoom with a pan, it works smoother to start the pan or tilt just a fraction of a second before the zoom.
  • Slow down. Let the action in the frame be the focus. Don’t try to “create action” with camera movement. Do move the camera with purpose. Directors (editors) love to cut on motion that is in the frame or “passing through” it.
  • It can be distracting to:
    1) Cut from a static composition to a move that’s already in progress. (Sometimes this works if you’re trying to create a feeling of excitement and action.)
    2) Cut from a move to a static composition.
    3) If you do one of the above, a dissolve between static shots and moves can help to visually blend one scene into another.

SCREEN DIRECTION and CROSSING THE LINE

Screen direction is the direction people and things face when viewed through the camera. The line is known as the axis of the action, or simply the axis. It’s an imaginary line which determines the direction people and things face when viewed through the camera. When you cross the line, you reverse the screen direction of everything you see through the camera, even though nothing has moved but the camera. As long as the camera stays on one side of the line, you won’t have a problem. Reversed screen direction equals confusion.

You can cross the line effectively if:
1) Your subject changes direction on camera.
2) You make a continuous move with the camera.
3) You stop on the line. You can go from one screen direction to another if you put a neutral shot with no screen direction in the middle.
4) Use a “point of view” shot (i.e. a computer screen from the subject’s POV)
5) Use a clean point of reference to help the viewer orient himself (i.e. a wide shot of people going up a gangplank to a ship, followed by a medium shot).
6) Cross the line at the same time as you cut on the action (not ideal, but works in a pinch).

CUTAWAY

NOTE: We don’t usually use cutaways during our live Millennium Stage broadcasts, but they are especially helpful for edited projects. A cutaway is a shot that lets you easily change the length and/or order of your sequence. The most common cutaway is the shot of the reporter listening in TV interviews. However, anything can serve as a cutaway, as long as it’s related to the main action, but not visually connected to it. That’s the great value of a cutaway:  when you cut to it, you don’t have to match anything in the main shot you’re cutting away from. If you look hard enough, you can find a cutaway for just about any sequence you shoot. In an interview with an athlete, his photos and trophies are cutaways. If a woman is sitting and talking to camera, a close-up of her hands in her lap is a cutaway. An extreme wide shot, or a shot from behind can also be a cutaway.

A BASIC SEQUENCE

The most important thing to remember in shooting a basic sequence is that each new shot should, if at all possible, involve a change in both image size and camera angle. This not only makes the sequence more interesting, but it also makes it much easier to cut back and forth between shots. You should change your camera angle by at least 45 degrees between shots. If you cut between two very similar shots (i.e. you change the image size and not the camera angle), this is called a JUMP CUT — this lack of variance makes the viewer uncomfortable.

CUTTING ON THE ACTION

A good way to get smooth transitions between shots is to cut on the action. The viewer’s eye naturally follows movement. If a movement begins in one shot and ends in the next, the viewer’s eye will follow the action right across the cut. There are lots of obvious situations where it’s convenient to cut on the action: sitting down, standing up, walking, jumping, waving, etc.

CLEAN ENTRANCE – CLEAN EXIT

Clean entrances and exits are good for almost any kind of shot where somebody or something is moving from one place to another, picking something up, putting something down, pulling, selecting, etc. Whenever you have anything moving through your frame, particularly in a close-up, you’ll be doing yourself a big favor by giving it either a clean entrance or a clean exit, or both. Decide whether you are going to follow your subject or if you are going to let them enter and exit the frame cleanly before you shoot. Avoid the awkward in-between camera movement. It distracts the viewer, makes them aware of the camera, and takes them out of the moment.

BASIC LIGHTING

The classic basic lighting set-up is as follows:

1) KEY LIGHT – Place your key light to one side of the camera and at about a 45 degree angle above your subject. This is your main light, the basis for the rest of your lighting setup. Unless you have good reason, no area in your frame should be brighter than the area lit by your key light. The viewer’s eye is always attracted to the brightest area of the frame.
2) FILL LIGHT – Setup your fill light on the opposite side of your subject from the key light. The fill should be bright enough to partially fill in the shadows from the key, leaving enough shadows to give a feeling of depth. (Completely shadowless lighting is called flat ligthting and gives less sense of depth.)
3) BACK LIGHT – The back light falls on your subject’s head and shoulders from behind, creating a rim of light which visually separates him from the background (especially useful when the subjects hair or clothes are similar in color to the background).
4) BACKGROUND LIGHT – The background light brings the background up into the same range of illumination as the rest of the scene and gives an added sense of depth. In general, it’s good to have your background a little darker than your key area.

DOING IT

WHAT DO YOU WANT?
When planning a shoot, the first thing is to decide what you want to end up with. What sort of story do you want to tell? Who will be your audience? How do yo want them to react? What things should you emphasize? What should you downplay? Keep all this in mind as you look over the location and talk with the people you’ll be working with.

MAKE A PLAN
Next, make a shooting plan. Decide where your cameras and subjects will be. Figure out which combinations of shots work well in sequences.

COMMUNICATE
Communicate with the rest of the crew. Let everyone know what you’re going to do. Discuss the shooting plan, ask for suggestions, and practice shots. Try to get across the idea that you’re all on the same team and you’re going to have fun.

DEALING WITH UNCERTAINTY
Many times you will encounter surprises or uncontrolled situations. But, you can always try for a decent composition. You can construct basic sequences by regularly changing your camera angle and image size. You can maintain your screen direction. You can let your subject enter and exit the frame cleanly.

WATCH and LEARN
Watch your shows. Watch other directors’ shows. Learn to criticize yourself. And learn to welcome criticism of your work. Every criticism can tell you something about your work. Analyze your successes and find out why they worked so you can repeat them. Evaluate and learn from your failures. Professionalism is based on the ability to repeat your successes, and avoid repeating your failures.

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