So you know the basics of digital cinematography: medium shots, wide shots, closeups and even extreme closeups. But why do your videos still lack that special zing?
Next time you’re watching your favorite TV show or movie, take a look at the camera angles the Director of Photography is using; they’re a lot more varied than you probably think. Let’s take a look at a few ways better digital cinematography can get your productions out of the doldrums.
1. Get Up High
Shoot from a ladder, a balcony, a window, or even from on top of a chair. This bird’s-eye view is a one we’re not used to seeing – things look different and exciting – it grabs the viewer’s attention. Cooking shows often use shots that look straight down on the action, so that viewers can see over the edge of the cooking pans. It’s also a very handy shot for looking at something like a pool game. But why not try an aerial shot of the birthday party or family reunion as well?
2. Get Down Low
To get the camera in a new spot nobody had tried before, wunderkind Orson Welles famously chopped a hole in the floor to fit a camera and tripod at shoelace level. Today’s modern video cameras don’t require anything so drastic to peer through a mouse hole.
This doesn’t just mean lying on the floor and photographing up people’s noses. Consider videotaping what a child or pet might see or what goes on under the dinner table. What can you tell about people from their shoes and socks? What’s under the sofa? How about putting a camera inside a dresser drawer as someone opens it and puts clothes away? Putting the camera somewhere other than eye level makes you look at the world in a new way.
3. Get Rid of Your Bubble Level
The 1960’s vintage Batman TV show and 2000’s Battlefield Earth were both famous for having extremely canted horizons and bad acting. While many directors spend a lot of time making sure that their camera is perfectly level, there’s no rule that says your horizon can’t slope drastically to one side or the other. It can add drama and a sense of forboding in tense scenes and can add interest in action shots during sporting events.
4. Mount It, Move It
Stephen J. Cannell was famous for mounting a camera on the door of the car, about wheel height, to get viewers six inches off the ground in a car chase. Add screeching tire sound effects, and even a twenty-mile-per-hour car chase looks like a scene from The French Connection. You don’t have to mount your camera to a car, but how about a skateboard? Or the door of the fridge? Today’s tiny camcorders don’t require the huge supports of yesterday’s huge video cameras; take advantage of this.
5. Steady as She Goes!
Steadicams are brand-name stabilizer devices with counterweights which make handheld camera movements smooth. The originals weighed a lot and had to be mounted to the operator with a brace, and the operator had to be trained and licensed in its use. New consumer versions weigh only a few pounds, and you can carry them with one hand. Try a stabilizer shot moving through dancers at a wedding or following the running dog at a park.
6. Spin It Around
Who says a camera has to look in one direction all the time? Try putting your camera on a rotating device like a lazy susan to pan back and forth between two characters in a dinner scene. Just don’t go crazy and make your viewer nauseous!
7. Use a Crane!
Crane shots add a whole new level of sophistication to your shoots. They can cost thousands of dollars, but there are also low-cost alternatives. Cranes like the Cobra Crane (www.cobracrane.com) start at just a few hundred dollars and use your existing tripod as a fulcrum. You could also use a camera strapped tightly to a monopod, or try making your own crane out of a sling securely fastened to the end of a long pole.
8. Point of View
We sometimes call a point-of-view shot a “first-person shot” or abbreviate it as “POV.” It is the camera shot we see very often in home videos, where the camera operator is holding the camera at eye level and walking about. But you can also effectively use POV shots to show what the Sasquatch sees as it creeps through the quiet camp at night.
Steven Spielberg used POV shots effectively in Jaws to show us what the shark was seeing. This added an element of excitement, as the audience wondered which of those tasty swimmers would be eaten. It also allowed him to show that the shark was in the scene without actually showing it, which he didn’t want to do, not only for budgetary reasons, but also to keep the viewers in suspense.
9. Put Your Camera Inside Something
“Hidden camera” shots by undercover journalists often use cameras placed inside purses or boxes to catch people unaware. Allen Funt made a career with Candid Camera by hiding cameras in plants or in coat closets and playing practical jokes on people.
YouTube and a spate of new reality TV shows have taken this a step further (very often taking an unabashed leap from the realm of questionable to complete bad taste). Spying on people while putting them into increasingly unbelievable situations has become de rigueur at this point. But you can also put your camera in a paper bag and rattle it for a first-hand account of the last thing a mouse sees as your cat charges across the floor to attack.
Break yourself of the habit of putting the camera at eye level. Your eyes are stuck at the top of your body, but your camera isn’t. Today’s lightweight and inexpensive camcorders can go places that cameras of only a few years ago couldn’t go without very expensive equipment and oftentimes large crews of people.
By considering a scene from many angles when you first see it and thinking of innovative and unusual ways to show things to your audience, you’ll engage and entertain them while telling your story.
Contributing editor Kyle Cassidy is a visual artist who writes extensively about technology.