When composing a shot, its important to think about how it will sit within a sequence, and what particular relevance that style of shot will add to your story. Understanding some of the basic styles of shots, and how they can be used to create an effect, whether it be isolation, intimacy, or just to create a sense of space, helps to make sense of film making and intention.
Much like a comic strip, a film is made up of different frames of varying sizes used to tell a story. The ‘size’ of these shots makes a real difference in what story is told.
Also referred to as a ‘long-shot’, there are many different types of wide shots, establishing shots, which are usually used at the beginning of a sequence to locate the story and landscape shots, which show a landscape in its whole breathtaking beauty. When the subject is a person, a wideshot refers to a shot in which the subject is visible from head to toe. Wideshots vary from wide(WS), very wide(VWS) to Exreme Wide(EWS). Aside from allowing the viewer to get a good sense of space and environment, a wideshot can also be used to convey wonder and awe, or isolation.
A midshot refers to a shot where the subject is visible from around their navel waist upwards. Midshots vary in size but exist somewhere between Wide shots and Close ups. A mid shot is great for capturing more emotion in the face, while also showing the movement and body language of your subject. Variations of the midshot also exist, such as the ‘Two Shot’ or 'Over the Shoulder' (OTS), which is basically a midshot that has two characters instead of just one. Midshots are a staple shot, especially for dialogue scenes, as they convey both the emotions on someones face, and the subtle body language they use.
Tight Close Up
Extreme Close Up
Close ups are very descriptive shots that focus the viewers attention quite narrowly. When filming a dialogue scene or a person, a close up refers to any shot where the subject is visible from the top of their shoulders/nape of their neck upwards. A tight Close up is when only their face is in shot. These kind of shots really help to emphasize the emotion of the subjects face, and particularly eyes. Close ups help to accent emotionally poignant moments, and uncover characters motivations or emotions.
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Another form of close up is the extreme close up, which can be of an eye, or the mouth, or the flame of a candle. Extreme close ups, or ECU’s, help to draw the audience’s attention to one particular thing. They help to pinpoint and arrest an audience’s attention, and make sure they don’t miss an important point.
Angles and placement
Those are your basic shot sizes, now on to shot styles and angles. While each shot size can impart its own aesthetic onto the films story, so too can placement and angles. Here are some of the basics.
Over the Shoulder
An over the shoulder shot is a great way to create a sense of space and depth within your frame. It helps to give the point of view of a character whilst still maintaining the third person. It’s great to use in dialogue scenes to create a sense of space.
Point of view shots break into the first-person, and can be jarring when used inappropriately, but give the viewer the feeling they are in the characters shoes. It can be a powerful technique that connects an audience with the emotion of the character, or it can make the audience aware of the artifice of filmmaking. Use it sparingly and intentionally, for example when you want to emphasize the experience of one character. Example photos or video.
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High and Low Angles
High and low angles are typically used to convey power. A low angle makes a character seem more imposing, while a high angle makes a character seem smaller and powerless. Low angles can also be used to convey the sense of a challenge or mountain to be climbed. Extreme high angles can be used to show people like ants, sometimes referred to as a ‘God’ shot. This gives the viewer a sense of looking down upon the world, making people look like ants and drawing attention to the futility of existence.
A dutch angle, or canted angle, is often used to add a feeling of intensity to a shot. A dutch angle is a tilted or angled frame. There is something slightly unsettling about a dutch angle, and they can be used to achieve an ‘edgy’ feel, or just to help you frame two elements at different heights. A dutch tilt is similar to a dutch angle, but you start with a normal angle, and use your tripod to tilt into the dutch angle. This can convey a sense of confusion or sickening realization.
This brings us to camera Movement. Camera movement can play a huge role in the motivation of your shots. Camera movement can however look jerky and be distracting. The difference between good and bad camera movement is often motivation, or intention. If you are going to use camera movement, know where your initial shot, or A shot, is and why its important, and where your final frame, or B shot, is.
Knowing where you want to go and why goes a long way to making your shots more interesting and dynamic, and allows you to use movement as a tool, rather than just aimlessly moving the camera and hoping it comes out well. With that in mind, consider these different uses of camera movement.
The dolly shot, or tracking shot is a shot that uses tracks or a dolly (a vehicle with wheels designed to move the camera fluidly along a line) to achieve smooth movements. Dolly shots are used at different scales and speeds, depending on the subject they are 'tracking'. They are a staple of high production value film making, and can be used to move fluidly between two different frames, or to maintain a frame while the subject moves.
Panning is a very simple technique and can be used quite effectively, often to convey a sense of space, or to ‘reveal’ something previously obscured or out of frame. Panning is often overused, or used without motivation, so make sure you know how and why you’re panning. Things to remember when panning are to set up your A and B shots, to test the movement and to try and keep a consistent or intentional speed. One way of keeping your speed consistent is to pull on the tripods handle with a rubber band instead of your hand. The rubber band evens the pressure being applied to the tripods handle and creates a smoother motion.
A snap Pan is just a very fast pan between two objects. Again, make sure you know what you’re A and B shots are, and practice a couple of times. This technique can be a bit cliche sometimes, but adds a lot of energy when used appropriately.
Tilting is just like panning only you are using the vertical axis instead of the horizontal axis. Tilts are great for revealing buildings or large objects. Photos.
Zooming, much like panning, is often overused, especially in home videos. It is a very powerful technique to bring the audiences focus on an object, and can even be used in conjunction with a dolly, for what can be referred to as a ‘Zolly’ shot.
The trick with zooming, like with any other camera technique, is to use it sparingly and intentionally. Even if you are shooting a Jason Bourne inspired handheld film, you want to have intent behind every zoom you use. Zoom in on a character, then zoom out to reveal something else, and back in to see our characters reaction for example.
The snap zoom, much like the snap pan, is just a very quick zoom, that ‘punches in’ or zooms out to reveal something. Often used in observational documentary and mockumentary.
Rack Focus/Pull Focus
A rack focus, or pull focus, while not technically a camera movement, creates a sense of motion within the frame. It is best achieved with a thin depth of field (See; Exposure) and manual focus. A rack focus is where your frame starts with one subject in focus, and then moves to another object. This refocusing mimics the way our eye is drawn from one thing to another and can be a great storytelling technique, and is generally very pleasing aesthetically. A few nice examples of rack focus.
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A cut away while not a shot size, or a style of composition, is an important shot to understand, especially for news, event coverage and documentary. Cut-away and B-roll are shots collected to cut-away to during your film. In documentary they are used to cover up interviews that would otherwise become boring to watch. Cut-away doesn't always have to be literal, or directly what someone is talking about, but should have some relation and visually aid the story being told. For example if someone is talking about the ebb and flow of the times you may cut to to waves, or if they were to say they feel claustrophobic you may cut to a tight space. While it is not literally them in a claustrophobic space, it does depict the ideas that are being put forward.
Collecting b-roll is an art form, it is often only given the moments in between interviews, and its important to know how to take advantage of that time. You will never collect enough b-roll for your film, and always be lacking that one shot that would be perfect. A good way to maximize your efficiency is to set your camera, decide what you want to shoot (a child’s teddy bear, a couple hugging on the beach, a steaming pipe etc.) and shoot a wide, a mid and a close-up, getting at least 5-10 seconds of each, and then move on. This gives you a lot of choice in the edit, and also more footage than if you only collect one shot every time you set your tripod.
Rule of Thirds
180degree rule/crossing the line
When composing a shot there are many different ways to capture a beautiful image. It is important to remember that rules are made to be broken, and it is no different with ‘The Golden Rule’. I however find this to be one of the most useful guidelines I have, this is my go to rule when I can’t quite find the framing on my shots and it is very visually digestible for an audience because not only does it look nice, but it is ubiquitous in film and photography.
The rule states that if you divide your screen into thirds horizontally and vertically, the points where those divisions meet are areas of the frame your eye is naturally drawn to. The idea is that you place your subjects key focal point on one or more of these areas.
This technique is especially helpful in interviews and shots of people generally. By putting the eye-line on the top right or left point, you are almost guaranteed a nice composition.
Leading Lines are another great tool when composing a shot. Strong lines can help draw the audiences attention to specific parts of your frame. Horizon lines are important to remember as well, as generally you want to make sure they are straight, unless you are going for a particular look. Leading lines can be very good at drawing attention, but be careful they don't 'cut' through your subject, or detract attention.
When framing your subject, even if you’ve followed the rule of thirds, its important to remember talk-space, headspace and lead-space. Talk space refers to the space on the side that the subject is talking towards. If they are facing left, they should have more space on the left side of the frame than the right side.
This creates a comfortable frame, and makes it feel as if the subject is engaged in a conversation, whereas, if the opposite is done,
It creates an uncomfortable and stifled frame, as if the subject is talking into a wall.
Head space refers to the space above the head, is there too much or too little? Generally following the rule of thirds will solve the problem of headspace, but sometimes your frame will still look a bit funny and you may need to re-adjust.
Lead-space is very similar to talk space, the rule is the same, to leave more space on the side someone is looking, but the purpose is different. Leadspace is left so that when you are panning or tracking with a moving subject, it doesn’t look like they are walking against the edge of the frame, and gives you as a camera operator, more time to react and adjust with their movements.
This takes us into screen direction. Screen direction is how we understand movement in film. It is important to try and keep a consistent screen direction, in order to create a sense of space in your audiences mind, instead of confusing them.
In practice this means that, say you were filming a chase scene, if one character is moving left to right across the screen, you want to maintain that movement across your frame, this will allow you to cut it together more seamlessly. You can change screen direction mid-shot, but cutting between two shots with differing screen direction can be spatially confusing for the audience.
By maintaining screen direction you can cut together multiple takes and locations creating the illusion that they all occupy the same time and space.
When framing interviews (especially if you are shooting with two cameras) it becomes important to maintain the direction that the subject is speaking to. For example, if you place the camera on the right of a subject, with them talking screen left, then you must also place your second camera on that side, keeping the subjects screen direction left. Obviously this is a guideline and not a rule, as the opposite can be done for different effects, but its important to understand screen direction and how your audience will most likely perceive the shots you are using.
This leads us to the 180 degree rule, or the action line. When shooting a scene, if you want to maintain screen direction and continuity, one easy way to do this is by drawing an invisible ‘action line’ between your two subjects (your two actors if it is a dialogue scene, or your subject and interviewer in an interview). Now only shoot from one side of this line. This maintains screen direction, but it also has another benefit. When shooting a dialogue scene, you want one person to be facing one way, and the other to be facing the opposite direction. This creates the illusion visually, that they are in the same space interacting with each other, even if they aren’t.
If they both talk in the same direction, they appear to be on the same side, which can create undesired a spatial confusion.
By maintaining the action line, both characters (if you are following the rule of thirds and talk space) should automatically occupy the opposite sides of the screen, creating a spatial illusion for the audience. This is similar to the 'Kuleshov' effect that you can read about in post-production. Because one person is looking left to right, and we cut to someone on the right, we assume they are looking, and having a conversation with them, when in reality the scene might have been done with a stand-in, in a different location, maybe even in a different country.