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Camera Work: Shots and Scenes

Shots and Scenes

Cutting between shots is as old as filmmaking, and for good reason. The stories that the first directors wished to record might run near half an hour, but their cameras could hold only a few minutes worth of film.

To solve the problem, they shot scenes in short sections, spliced the separate film strips together, and so invented the cut from one shot to the next.

But the camera "angle" did not come around at the same time. Trying to reproduce the experience of watching a play from a theater seat, the earliest filmmakers placed the camera well back from the action and recorded almost every shot from about the same position. The result resembled figure 1a. Booorring!

Movies evolved quickly, however. Within about ten years, directors had learned to vary the camera position to achieve variety, show details, intensify drama or simply conceal the fact that a cut had happened. In short, they had discovered camera angles.

All this might fascinate film historians, but why should you care? Because, to this day, most beginners make videos that resemble figure 1a. They doggedly record one piece of action after another, from pretty much the same position. If they understood the craft of shots and camera angles, they could instantly improve their programs by maybe 1,000 percent.

If this claim seems a tad inflated, compare figure 1a with 1b, in which the camera angles change significantly. Even in this simple diagram, the improvement should be evident.

To explore the craft of camera angles, we're going to look at why you should vary them, how to vary them effectively, and how to select just the right shot "B" to follow each particular shot "A."

What's Your Angle?

But first, what is an angle, anyway? In the visual media, it's simply the position from which the camera records its subject. The word "angle" came from those early, theater- oriented film directors. At a play the audience can watch only from in front of the action; it can't get around to see it from the sides--from oblique angles. As film directors began moving the camera around the action, any setup other than head-on became known as an angle (and eventually head- on was so-labeled too.)

A camera angle usually takes its name from one of the three dimensions in which the camcorder operates:

  • Horizontal position, such as front angle, three-quarter angle or profile angle.
  • Height, such as bird's eye angle, neutral angle, low angle.
  • Distance (gauged by the amount of a standing human included in the frame), such as long shot, medium shot, closeup.

Sometimes, we give a camera setup two or more labels, as in "Give me a high-angle closeup shot."

In an earlier column ("The Language of Shots," March, 1995) we named the more common camera angles. Now we're going to show how to use them.

Why Change Angles?

Changing the camera angle alters the image of the subject being videotaped, and there are several reasons for doing this: to conceal edits, to provide the perfect viewpoint, to add overall variety and to control rhythm and pace.

The most universal function of angle changing is to conceal edits. Every professional video consists of scores or even hundreds of separate shots. But except in some commercials and music videos, the edits that connect those shots should be invisible to viewers.

Now you might think that the more closely angle B resembles angle A, the more invisibly the two shots will cut together. But the reality is just the opposite, because this type of cut matches the camera angle rather than the subject's action. Cutting between nearly identical angles results in what looks like a single shot with a piece chopped out of its middle. That's called a jump cut and it's very obvious, even to the inattentive viewer.

To achieve an unobtrusive cut, you need to do the exact opposite. Instead of matching the camera angle while changing the action, you match the action while decisively changing the angle. That way, the subject's apparently unbroken movement fools the viewer into believing that the action is uninterrupted, and the very different angle of shot B prevents effective comparison with shot A. The result is an invisible edit, and an uninterrupted scene flow. We'll show how to achieve these stealth cuts a bit further on.

The next most important reason for changing the camera angle is to find the best viewpoint and framing for the shot--that is, to set the camcorder at the right place at the right time, and aimed to show the right amount of the right subject.

What's "Right?"

Aye, there's the rub. There's no way to define it beyond noting that the "right" camera angle delivers exactly what the audience wants and/or needs to see at any given moment. In story and music videos, the right angle also delivers the emotional message--the feeling--that the videomaker wants to convey. An instinct for exactly the "right" angle is an essential talent for professional directors.

But if the subtleties of choosing angles are elusive, the basics are plain common sense. At each moment in your program, just ask yourself what is the most important thing to convey to the audience.

To see how this works, look at figure 2, a purposely corny and overwrought scene in which the emotions on the actors' faces are obviously the most important information. In the first version (figure 2a) every camera angle is wrong. Marsha drops her bomb on John in a distant and uninvolving 3/4-length two- shot. Then it gets worse: for John's anguished reaction, we cut to a long shot in which we can't see either actor's expression. Then, for Marsha's emotional explanation, all we get to see is the back of her head.

The alternate version in figure 2b (though hardly Academy Award material) is a big improvement, in several ways:

  • Every shot is close enough to clearly show the actor's emotions.
  • Each shot features the face of the actor whose emotions you want to see at that particular moment.
  • Intimately close to begin with, the shots get progressively closer, to help intensify the drama.

The next reason for changing angles is to provide visual variety. Looking at the same image for too long is not only boring, but also tiring to the eye.

To see this, go back to figure 1 and study figure 1c. Like figure 1b, it changes angles from shot to shot. But it does so only by repeating the same two setups, a technique used by directors forced to shoot quickly and cheaply. (A "setup," by the way, is a single camera position, including lights, microphones, etc.)

When you compare the figures you'll see that the improvement from 1c to 1b delivers a clear moral: don't get lazy. Do whatever it takes to shoot from varied setups.

And finally, you want to vary camera angles to help control the rhythm and pacing of each scene:

  • You control the rhythm by varying the amount of time you allow each shot to remain on the screen.
  • You control pace by setting the average amount of time shots stay on the screen. In general, shots in an action sequence will be shorter (though their lengths will vary from shot to shot); while the shots in a lyrical interlude will tend to run longer.

Rhythm and pace are primarily editing issues, of course; but they belong to production too. You must make sure and capture the necessary angles appropriate to the intended style of the sequence for editing. A fistfight with only two or three angles will be difficult keep lively, while a romantic embrace broken into 30 separate shots may be unintentionally funny.

How to Do It

Changing camera angles involves two kinds of operations: choosing a different image and setting up your equipment to record it. Let's start with changing the image.

We said earlier that to do this, you can shift your camcorder's position, height or distance from the subject. We also said that if a change in angle's too small, the resulting edit will make the image "jump" on the screen. To ensure a big enough change in image you should always shift at least two out of the three possibilities typically camera position and subject distance. (You can also change "distance" by zooming to make the subject larger or smaller.)

To see what this means, look at figure 3. In 3a the second shot is identical to the first one, except that the camcorder has moved closer. In 3b the opposite is true: the camera has stayed at the same distance, but moved around to capture the actor's profile. Both edits are jump cuts because the shift in viewpoint is small enough to let the viewer compare the first and second shots. In 3c, however, both camera position and subject distance change, and the resulting edit looks smooth and unobtrusive.

In choosing which two changes to make, it's perfectly all right to shift camera height instead of lateral position; but it's a good idea to always shift the distance, and hence, the image size. If this sounds a bit confusing, just look at figure 3, whose six pictures are worth far more than the preceding 200 words.

Changing angle always means shifting equipment, so you need to know how to minimize the time and effort required to get a variety of images. The obvious method is to move the camcorder to a completely new setup for each angle. But there are other possibilities.

For instance, you can group several shots from the same setup together, even though they appear at different points in the finished program. By shooting out of sequence like this, you can avoid having to break the setup, shoot from another position, and then rebuild the old setup again. Secondly, you can change image size only (by zooming in or out) as long as you won't be cutting the two shots together. That is, if new setup B will appear between shots A and C, you could make shot A a long shot and shot C a closeup from exactly the same position. (The result would look like figure 3a) By separating the two with a shot from setup B, you avoid a jump cut.

Finally, you can also get varied angles by shooting inserts--cut-ins of small details of the action or cutaways of reaction shots.

How Much Change?

So far, we've looked at reasons for varying shots and ways to do so smoothly. Now the question comes up: how strongly should you change the shot angle? As always, it depends. If you study films from the golden age of Hollywood (and they're all over the classic movie cable channels), you'll notice that the changes in angle were mild compared to what we're used to today. (Figure 4a represents a "Hollywood" edit.) For one thing, extreme changes in angles called attention to the edit and that, again, was a big no-no.

For another thing, films back then weren't shown on underachieving TV screens, so there was less reason to punch in to closeups as often. So when you did see Ingrid Bergman's luminous eyes fill the width of a theater screen, the effect was all the more breathtaking.

Nowadays, as you can see from figure 4b, we tolerate and even prefer stronger edits, just as we demand faster pacing and fewer transition effects (dissolves and fades).

Figure 4c represents a shock cut: an angle change that's intended to jolt the audience. In our illustration, shot 4b's position has changed along with the distance; but in extreme cases like this, directors use jump cuts intentionally to heighten the shock even further.

When you should use each style of angle change depends entirely on your subject matter and your intended audience. If you're making an informational video on pension plan options, then angle changes may be the only lively program component you've got. If so, use them exuberantly.

By contrast, if the topic is "Choosing Your Memorial Park," then shock cuts a la "Nightmare on Elm Street" may be just a tad extreme. But however mild or extreme, the typical size of your angle changes will be a strong component of your videomaking style, so you need to be aware of them as you work.

Which Angle When?

Earlier, we noted that you want to find exactly the "right" angle for every shot in your program. On top of that, you should know that certain sequences of angles have become established over the years. As with size change, you might label these sequences classic, contemporary, and, well, let's call the third one "MTV."

In the classic Hollywood style, a scene often begins with an "establishing shot"--a wide shot intended to orient viewers. An establishing shot shows you where you are and who's where. From there, the camera moves in to full shots and three-quarter length shots, before settling down to medium shots punctuated with occasional closeups.

Though many now consider this progression of angles to be hackneyed and dull, it can still be very useful, especially when you must introduce complicated locations and situations. In some cases, the audience will never get with the program, so to speak, if you don't orient them at once. In contemporary filmmaking, many sequences still contain establishing shots. The difference is that they are seldom the first shot in the sequence. The director will start with closer angles at once, to enhance audience involvement with the characters, and then pull back to a wide shot only when the audience needs to know the context of the scene.

Also, modern directors seldom deliver rigid sequences of matched medium shots and closeups. Instead, (time and money permitting) they prefer to frame each shot strictly according to its own needs.

When you get to the very personal world of music videos and experimental programs, all rules go out the window. Angle changes tend to be as extreme as possible, and, instead of being hidden through cunning craft, video techniques are flaunted and featured.

Again, all of these angle sequences can be useful to you in different program applications; and if you know what they are, you'll be ready to implement any of them comfortably.

The Bottom Line

So there's a hefty dose of movie making theory and practice. In all of it three things stand out:

  1. Take pains to vary your camera angle between every shot you make.
  2. In doing so, vary the subject distance and either the camera's horizontal position or its height.
  3. Hunt for the "right" angle that shows exactly what's needed at each point in the program.

One more thing--to slightly paraphrase a famous observation by Oliver Wendell Holmes, no generalization is worth anything--including this one.

Good shooting!

Tags:  January 1996
Jim
Stinson
Mon, 01/01/1996 - 12:00am