Camera Magic

So you’ve read a few of the articles about using a tripod and you have actually tried a few lighting techniques, but you say your videos still lack pizzazz and finesse? You don’t have a lot of money to spend on a more advanced editing system and the computer you do have has enough trouble delivering your e-mail. What’s a person to do? The answer? In-camera effects: the secret to camera magic since the invention of film. In this column, we will describe ways to accomplish some pretty amazing effects, right in your camera. These techniques only require three things: a camera, some imagination and a dose of the most magic of all ingredients, good planning.

Practice Makes Perfect

Today’s camcorders have the ability to start and stop on a dime and digital camcorders are frame accurate. This wasn’t always the case. However, we live in the twenty-first century so we should be able to take advantage of it. The first stop on our tour of camera magic begins with your camera. Make sure you know how to change the focus smoothly, slowly zoom in and out without stuttering, and pause and record precisely where you want.

With your camera on a tripod, make sure you can pan and tilt smoothly and at the same speed. Some of this is practice, but quality (expensive) tripods (especially the head) dramatically improve your ability to perform smooth camera moves. Counting or listening to music can help keep your camera movements consistent. As with any other type of magic, you have to know your equipment well to be able to perform flawlessly. Once you have practiced with your camera and know all of its bells and whistles, you are ready to learn the secret formulas for a little bit of in-camera magic.

Condensing Time and Space: In-Camera Dissolves

By using the following camera techniques, you can actually condense time and space. In other words, turn something that usually takes hours, days or weeks into a series of believable shots that take seconds. While condensing time and space techniques usually use an editing system’s dissolves and wipes, you can create very nice substitutes right in your camera.

To create a dissolve-type transition, tightly focus on your subject and slowly defocus. Then, pause the camera and change subjects. Now, hit record and slowly bring your new subject into focus. If you are careful to defocus your subjects so that nothing is readily recognizable, the resulting effect will seamlessly fit together. The closer the color, shape and lighting, the more seamless the transition will appear.

A variation of that same shot begins with a zoom in to the subject and defocusing the camera before you get to your desired close up. Then, pause your camera, set your next shot up, tightly zoomed in on your subject and defocused. Finally, hit the record button and slowly zoom out while refocusing the shot. This shot works extremely well if it is focused on the same object to create the sense of a passage of time.

Shoot in Sequence and Screen Direction

Another way to condense time and space is with well-planned cutaways. A cutaway is a shot that quickly takes you away from the subject, allowing them to jump ahead in time and space. For example, it might take you two minutes to walk from your car to the mailbox and into the house.

You can shoot that same sequence in twenty seconds (or even much less) by getting a shot of your subject by following this sequence:

  1. Shoot a shot of your subject opening the car door.
  2. Cut away to her feet hitting the pavement.
  3. Cut to a long shot of her closing the car door.
  4. Cutaway to her dog barking and dancing in front of her (from her point of view).
  5. Cut to a medium shot of her nearing the mailbox.
  6. Cutaway to a close shot of her hand reaching inside and grabbing the mail (maybe even from inside the mailbox).
  7. Cut to a medium shot as she walks and holds the mail up to the sun to peak at what’s inside.
  8. Cut to a shot of her dog going through the doggy door.
  9. Finally, cut to her opening the door and walking in.

Nine shots that condense time and space and tell a story in half the time it would take to shoot one long shot. Moreover, the piece is much more interesting for the viewer. You don’t even need to use all nine shots if you don’t want to, depending on how important the scene is to your movie. The secret to making this work is to maintain screen direction by always shooting on the same side of your subject (shoot from just their right or left side). You can also use neutral shots without direction, like the extreme close-ups of the mail or shots of the subject walking directly towards the camera.

Match Cuts

Match cuts are another way to convincingly condense time and space. To do this, you need two objects that are very similar such as two plates of food. In the first scene, you show the heroine sitting in front of the television, its audio blaring into the night, competing with the sounds of a dog barking and someone having an argument nearby. On her lap is a paper plate with a half-eaten sandwich and a pickle. Cut to a shot of just the plate. Record for three seconds and then pause the tape. Set up your next scene: It’s a lavish dinner party. Cut to a shot of a shiny plate with a steak in place of the sandwich and asparagus spikes in place of the pickle. Shoot it for three seconds and then pause. Then record a long shot of our heroine in an evening gown, enjoying her meal in the festive atmosphere of a dinner party. You can also create this series of shots using a pan and zoom in, pause, change scenes, record, zoom and pan out. The director of the animated movie Shrek used this technique effectively throughout the film.

Natural Wipes

Wipes are another way to condense time and space. One interesting natural wipe uses a pan-to-still shot. To do this unique wipe, pan your camera with the subject until he passes behind a large object such as a wall, post or other object. Stop your pan when the subject disappears behind the object (i.e. the object is between the camera and the subject) and pause your camera. Set up your next shot, hit record and pan with your subject as he reappears from behind the obstruction wearing new clothes or looking like he’s aged ten years.

You can also create a wipe using a large moving object as well. You can create a wipe-in by panning with your subject until they are totally obscured by a large object, such as a truck or bus moving in the opposite direction. When the subject is fully covered, pause tape, go to a later shot in the scene and the wipe effectively allows you to jump ahead in time and space. A wipe-out is exactly the opposite. For this shot, you begin with your subject hidden by the large moving object and then suddenly revealed. By combining these shots and using the same or similar objects, you can have your subject change location during the cut. The cut appears seamless if you carefully time the pause point and then record when the large object is in the same position and moving the same direction and speed.

Real Time Effects

You can also create real-time effects in camera. For example, continue following your subject as they move towards you and have them walk towards the camera until they fill the screen. Then, pause the tape and reverse the shot. Have them walk away from the camera and record as they leave the shot. This will only work if they do not slow as they approach the camera and they must walk away at the same pace they were going as when they came towards the camera. Again, music helps to give a sense of pacing.

You can also use swish pans to get into and out of a scene. To end a scene, record your last shot and suddenly pan quickly left, right, up or down, hitting pause at the fastest point of the pan. If done correctly, this gives a blurred effect to the last 2 seconds or less of the shot. To swish into a scene, start your swish, hit record and come to a halt where your scene is taking place. Be forewarned, an in-swish is a little harder to execute, and takes some practice, because you have to steady up the camcorder quite quickly following the swish.

Making Magic

As with every bit of camera magic, each of these techniques will take some practice and a great deal of planning. Storyboard your shots so that you know what you will need to prepare for and practice before you actually shoot your story. With a some good solid planning, knowledge of your equipment and a bit of practice, you should be able to perform camera magic that will turn your projects into magical moments, instead of just drab home movies. Perhaps better still, if you do it right, you won’t even need to edit.

Dr. Robert G. Nulph is an Associate Professor of Communication Studies and an independent video producer/director.

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