Most professionals agree videomaking is more a craft than an art. This is good news for videomakers, as it means developing and improving video skills is more a matter of perspiration than inspiration. Indeed, the millions of camcorder owners who aspire to quality video can create same with a modicum of study and application.
Let us explore some of the pathways open to those eager to grow. To begin with, one can read. Both magazines and books offer comprehensive information on fundamental subjects. There are also instructional videos for sale or rent covering many aspects of videomaking.
If you learn more easily through interaction with others, join a club or take a course in one of the many community schools and colleges throughout the country.
If you have hopes of turning professional, you should read, join a club, take advanced courses and apprentice yourself to an established pro.
Finally, you will surely profit from a programmed learning technique I call Video Analysis 101. This system for enhanc-and Classes are held 24 hours a day. You proceed at your own pace and are guaranteed to become a better videomaker without leaving home.
To illustrate the principle behind Video Analysis, let’s look at an example.
In university courses in the fme arts, one of the most profitable exercises is the study of the great masters. Students are encouraged to more than just looking at paintings. There is an active program of analysis, in which chosen samples are studied with regard to specific artistic values. A class may criticize color, hue and tone and compare one artist with another. Composition may be evaluated to learn which elements of placement and flow make for the most pleasing arrangement. Perspective, line, detail and brush technique are each studied separately.
No one is expected to learn to paint through analysis alone, but there’s no better way to develop an awareness of the elements of good technique.
After some practice, students no longer evaluate art in generalizations. Adjectives such as “nice,””powerful,””pleasing” and “interesting” give way to specifics. “The chromatic range is wide; the perspective draws you into the picture; the placement of the main figures is balanced and harmonious.” These insights arise from a developing sophistication; student artists think more creatively when they pick up the brush.
So much for Video Analysis theory. On to method.
First we need a video masterwork to study. Casablanca or Citizen Kane are unnecessary; for our purposes, any thirty minute network TV show produced in the studio will do.
Choose a show typifying the sort of shooting you’d like to engage in. Comedy, documentary, western, mystery, action, soap, interview-take your pick. Don’t get hung up on the choice. Almost any show crediting a director of photography is OK
Once having made your selection, arrange to watch the production while taping it onto your VCR. Use the pause control to delete cornmercials. You’ll be left with about 22 minutes of story. We’ll call this segment the “master,” regardless of how thin the plot may be.
You’ll be playing back your master with a pencil and notebook in hand. Each time you run the tape you’ll study some new aspect of video production. Keep the sound down for all visual evaluations.
Mounting and Moving
One of the most important areas of videomaking study is camera mounting and movement. This is where most videomakers foul up; professionals make it look so good, you rarely observe what they’re doing. Good video is dynamic yet smooth, mainly because of the way in which the camera is handled.
When we dissect a professional video, we discover a variety of ways in which the camera is mounted or manipulated. Let’s review the more common techniques, one by one.
Camera Angle: the videomaker usually shoots at eye level, the way viewers normally see things. At times the lens may be pointed down from a high angle or, conversely, up from a low angle. When actors are conversing, the speaker is frequently shot from over the shoulder of the listener. The angle is then reversed as the listener responds.
Following the Action: here the camera moves to keep a moving subject framed. Usually the movement is slight, from one side to another. Occasionally the camera slowly moves up or down, following the actor on a staircase, for example. The camera motion may be almost imperceptible but is always rock steady-no shakes, rattles or rolls. This is also called “follow focus” to indicate keeping the subject both framed and in focus.
Panning and tilting: when the camera slowly sweeps from left to right or vice versa, we have a pan. Study your master to see how and why it’s used. Up and down camera movement is known as a tilt.
Dollying: in this technique the camera is mounted on a rolling platform and the operator moves toward or away from a subject. Viewers feel they’re getting closer to or further from the action. As the camera gets closer (dollies in) objects in the foreground take up more of the frame; objects in the background change little in size.
Trucking: this is simply a lateral movement of the camera. Sometimes the camera and its operator are in a moving conveyance-auto, baby carriage, wagon, wheelchair-tracking along with the subject while maintaining a fixed distance. Think of the view from a police car following a subject walking along the street.
Zooming: modern cameras possess lenses that allow focal length to be changed from wide angle to telephoto while the subject remains in focus. When the operator zooms in the ohjects in the foreground grow larger and, unlike dollying in, the proportionate size of objects in the background grows. There is a significant difference between a shot taken from close up with a short focal length and one taken from a distance with a long focal length, even though their foreground objects may appear the same size. The pros avoid asing zooms in the place of dollies. They are used when the operator wants their peculiar effect.
In your notebook jot down the six headings listed above. Now, here’s the task. Run a five or ten-minute segment of the master, calling out moves. Shout out changes in angle or camera movement. Thus, a segment may sound like “High angle” “Follow focus! “”Eye level!””Pan left!””Over the shoulder!” “Truck right!””Low angle! “”Dolly in!””Eye level! “”Zoom out!”
Even after your first attempt at shot identification you should notice a change in the way you look at video, a growing sophistication in your analysis.
Now let’s go a step further. Rewind the master and run the tape once again. Look for the following: an unusual camera angle, a pan, a tilt, a dolly, a zoom. Make a note of the index counter numbers on your VCR for each example.
Find the unusual angle and answer the following questions. What does a low or high angle accomplish? What is the camera operator’s justification for such a shot?
Find the pan. Is it right to left or vice versa? What is the duration in seconds? Does the pan start with a static shot? Does it end With a static shot? What is the purpose of the pan? To establish locale? Reveal new information?
Ask the same questions of the tilt.
Locate the dolly. Is it in or out? Why was it used instead of a zoom? What’s the duration in seconds? What follows it?
Locate a zoom. In or out? Is it used to focus attention on a person, place or thing? To reveal more information?
This kind of analysis is fundamental. Your understanding of the aesthetic and emotional effects of camera techniques will grow in pro-portion to the time you spent studying.
Framing and Composition
The dictionary defines composition as a pleasing and effective arrangement of objects in a frame. In videomaking, a horizontal rectangle-rado 4:3-frames a dynamic image.
How well do professionals maintain a pleasing arrangement in the face of continuous motion? Again, we can turn to video analysis for the answer.
Recognizing good composition while images are moving can be quite difficult. But with the pause/still button on your VCR, you can momentarily convert movies into stills, and analysis becomes both easy and fascinating-especially if you knw what to look for. Here are a few concepts and activities that can aid appreciation of composition.
Steady Horizon: in a good video, any plane-be it sidewalk, table, bookshelf or the meeting of earth and sky-photographed head-on must be as close to perfectly level as possible. Beginners are often careless in this; the result is a scene that runs downhill and calls attention to itself. Since most scenes are not shot head-on, an easier reference to a steady horizon are verticals formed by doorjambs, window frames or room corners.
Run a few minutes of the master, pause a couple of seconds and concentrate on a horizontal or vertical plane. Specifically, what object or line serves as the plane of reference?
Return to play and watch another few minutes. Notice how rock steady the verticals remain. Observe what a good tripod and careful setup can do.
Proper Grouping: the video screen has only two dimensions-height and width. But we see people and objects in three dimensions. What does the pro do to giVe scenes depth and visual interest?
Run your tape until you find a grouping of two or three. Pause for analysis. Then answer these questions. Are the characters in a natural relationship to one another? Are the indivicluals doing something, even if only holding glasses? Are the people lined up diagonally or do they stand in a straight line, facing front as if in a poor snapshot?
Tape on Tape
Now directyour concentration to groupings alone.
The Rule of Thirds: a time-tested mechanical method for evaluating cornposition involves dividing the screen into thirds, both horizontally and vertically.
In a well composed shot, important visual elements should appear along the dividing lines, usually a third of the way down and a third of the way in from the left or right. Ideally, the center of interest should appear at the intersection of horizontal and vertical.
Run two strips of narrow masking tape both up and down and sideways cross the screen. Then run a few mmutes of your master. You need not answer any questions. Just sit back and watch the consistency of true professionals. Notice how frequently the eyes of two characters in a frame will appear at the crossing points ofthe dividing lines.
This is no accident.
Framing Faces and Bodies: guided by the Rule of Thirds, the placement of a face becomes relatively fixed.
But suppose an actor is facing offscreen to the right or left. Find such a shot on the master and you’ll notice there’s more space in front of the character than behind. This is to prevent the feeling that the actor’s about to walk out of the frame. This concept is particularly important if the camera’s panfling or trucking with the action. Be the subject a runner or a speeding automobile, it does not threaten to leave the frame. The camera stays about half a frame ahead of it.
A final word on the analysis of composition. You will seldom see full-length, head-to-toe shots. Instead, the bottom of the frame cuts off the body at a pleasing plane. If you run tape to find such a cutoff, you’ll notice the horizontal is rarely or never placed at a body joint such as the neck, waist, knee or ankle. Rather, cutoffs occur between joints-shoulders, chest, midthigh, calf.
In our analysis of camera movement and composition we keep making reference to individual “shots.” But just what is a shot?
Look at it this way: when you point your camera at a scene, start the tape running, then press the stop button, you have a shot. It makes no difference whether the interval between start and stop is five seconds or five minutes. Start to stop is a shot.
Shots are the building blocks upon which videos are made. And the way in which shots are trimmed and strung together to create a smoothly flowing whole is known as continuity.
To analyze continuity as practiced by the pros, concentrate separately on the type of shot, the duration of the shot and the change or transition from one shot to the next.
Shot Variety: once again crank up the master, this time with an eye toward identifying shot types. Here is a rough classification which you can jot down in a short column in your notebook: long shot (LS), medium shot (MS), closeup (CU), cutaway. Variations are possible, from Extreme Long Shot (ELS) to Ex-treme Closeup (ECU), but the differences are only in degree.
Sometimes a long shot is referred to as a Wide Shot (WS) or an Establishing Shot (ES). Confusing? Not really. An LS is photographed from a distance, to reveal a locale or subjects in their environment. This can also be accomplished by setting the camera lens to wide angle, thus revealing the subjects and/or their surroundings just as well. Since this type of shot establishes the locale and characters, it’s frequently called an ES.
If you watch Matlock you’ll notice several times during the hour that an ES of the hero’s office building is followed by an interior of his office. Or an ES of the courthouse is followed by a cut to the courtroom. The ES tells you where the subsequent action takes place.
Now we’re ready to roll the tape. First, run about five minutes to see how smoothly one shot blends with another. Then rewind and restart the tape, this time calling the shots. A sequence might flow ES, LS, MS, LS, MS, CU, ECU, cutaway, CU, LS. You might wish to score in your notebook a tick next to each shot type in a five-minute segment.
Notice that a wide variety of shots comprise each segment. Note also how cutaways are used to cut between two shots in which the screen direction is reversed. Each shot will be different in size and/or angle from the shot that follows. Variety is the key to grabbing and holding viewers’ attention.
It’s time for a real adventure in analysis, one that will indelibly impress upon you the makeup of professional videos.
Shot Duration: roll tape and start timing the duration of shots within a sequence. You won’t have time to use a stopwatch; just count and record the results in your book or your mind.
Early filmmakers discovered that our attention span is greater if we see five images for about eight seconds each rather than one image for forty seconds. This is the theory too behind good video. String together shots that are fairly short-rarely more than 20 seconds-with a good deal of variety in size and angle. This editing can be accomplished in the camera or during post-production.
Transitions: usually the change from one image to the next is a simple, clean cut. One shot ends, the next begins. Nobody, except the video analyst, notices the cut, and the video moves along smoothly. Each cut acts like a comma in a long sentence.
Perhaps 90 percent of all transitions are cuts. But eventually a sequence comes to an end, and then the editor informs the audience by using a fade, wipe, dissolve or other device.
Most often, the ending of a series of scenes comes via fade to black. In commercial TV, the fade provides a convenient place to insert messages from sponsors. When the action resumes, it can be cut or faded in depending on the pace of the show.
Wipe, Swish, Dissolve
The pros use several other devices between scenes to indicate a change in time or locale.
In the dissolve, one scene fades out as another fades in. There’s no black on the screen; the viewer receives the subtle message that two sets of actions are occuring simultaneously, that time has elapsed, or that the camera has moved to a new location.
In a wipe, one image moves off the screen as another moves in to replace it. The second picture can be black or another video scene. The movement can be right to left, up to down, from the center outward, or a circle out as the hero rides into the sunset.
The swish pan had its heyday in Hawaii Five-O. Here, the camera pans so rapidly the image is a blur. The next scene comes in the same way. Both the blur-out and blur-in blend to provide a transition, usually showing a change in place. The nice thing about this effect is that it can be accomplished using only the camera; a special effects generator isn’t needed.
The pros have other tricks to suggest changes in time or place. Freeze frames; a cutaway to the moving hands of a clock; calendar pages falling or turning color.
Your next assignment: run the master and keep one eye on a clock or a stopwatch. Count the number of cuts in a minute.
Then find a fade, a wipe, a dissolve. Use your pause button to stop the tape and then answer the following. Why was the effect used? To show simultaneous action? The passage of time? A change in locale?
Find other transitions and answer the same questions.
I hope you’ve changed the way you look at professional video. And I hope your appreciation of the work of others will influence your own techniques and skills.
Now the thing to do is to practice. Shoot some footage concentrating on one particular aspect of videomaking. Play back the tape and score yourself.
Consider the following choices. “Shows remarkable progress.” “Will continue to improve.” “Can use more practice.” “Needs assistance.”
Be kind to yourself.
Video Analysis 101 was an introductory class. We didn’t even cover lighting, sound, special effects or titles, not to mention content. But by now you’re probably ready to write your own curriculum.
Irving Zeichner was a teacher of biology, assistant principal, enthusiastic videomaker and organizer of a video club. He passed away last April at the age of 71.