If you’re working with even one other person on your video project, you need to have a basic understanding of the lingo so you can communicate your needs. The first job a camera department trainee typically lands is as a grip. Grips are the crew technicians who hustle between “the truck” and the set with work gloves flopping out of their back pockets, making sure that the DP (director of photography) gets the right fixture, gel, camera rigging, scrim, net, diffusion, half blue, extension, scissor mount, gator grip, reflector, whatever, and right now, if not sooner.
I Want it “Cowboy”
Camera department jargon is the language of a unique tribe on a film set. It won’t be long before even the tea lady knows the meaning of “Let’s shoot it cowboy,” (frame up the shot at holster level) or “I want it shallow focus,” (with the background soft). Does this mean that as a director you need to keep pace with the DP’s mastery of image control and start speaking in f-stops? Not at all, that’s their job. It also doesn’t mean you have to impress your cinematographer with your knowledge of, and enthusiasm for gear. DPs like it best when directors put their attention on script, actors and action.
But in truth, effective visual storytelling in a film is the collective responsibility of director and craftspeople in both camera and art departments. In film and video production, when we refer to the head of the camera department, these terms are generally understood to be interchangeable: film cameraman/woman, cinematographer, lighting cameraman/woman and most typically director of photography (DP or DOP). Cinematographers are expected to be more than camera placers, lens changers and camera movers. The most valued DPs are visual consultants who can execute camera direction from the director to achieve the desired emotional effect of a scene. The basic categories of camera direction include motion, focus, angle, speed and composition.
It’s almost too obvious to say, but one of the main objectives in motion picture photography is motion. Well-executed camera movement is a powerful storytelling tool that not only enhances the visual experience of a scene, but also its emotional impact.
- If you want vertical camera movement, ask for a “crane up” or a “crane down” shot.
- Directives for lateral camera movement are expressed as “truck left” and “truck right.”
- A “counter-move to action” is a dynamic lateral move where the camera glides against the flow of the action accelerating the pace of a shot.
- For camera movement front to back (along the z-axis) ask for a “dolly in” or a “dolly out.” “Leading” is a dolly shot where the camera leads the actor, shot from the front. A “follow” is a dolly shot or “tracking shot” where the camera follows the actor from behind.
- Maybe you just want a short dolly move for dramatic effect, “push in” and “push out” are the directions.
- A director who wants something shot “on the mag” or “on the boom” is asking for camera orientation to be in line with the action axis.
Focus is another obvious cinematography requirement. Selective focus directs the attention to where the director wants it in the frame.
- If you want to go soft on the center of attention in the shot, ask for a simple “in” or “out”.
- “Split focus,” also called “rack focus,” is achieved by “pulling” focus from one object to another, from foreground to background or the reverse.
- “Shallow focus” is usually shot on a “long lens” (zoomed in). Shallow because only a selective short depth of focus draws the eye to the important object or person in the shot while foreground and background elements remain soft or blurry.
- When a director wants to shoot a scene “deep focus” They are asking for everything to be in focus, from the furthest away object in the shot to the item nearest the camera, back to front. Gregg Toland’s innovative techniques allowed him to achieve the ultimate deep focus movie, Citizen Kane.
Angling for the Best View
Angles figure into the language of camera direction in two very different ways. One has to do with camera placement the other with lens optics.
- If you want the camera to look down on a subject or on a scene simply ask for a “high” angle for a bird’s eye view. If you want the camera to look up at a character for that powerful, dominant view ask for a “low angle” placement of the camera.
- But when a director wants to use the lens for a specific angle of view he will ask the DOP to shoot it on “tele,” zoomed in, or on “wide” with the lens zoomed out. Zoomed in or “tele” shots are good for a soft look where the background is out of focus. “Wide” shots usually have a lot of depth of field, and everything in the shot in focus.
- When directors want the camera to assume the point of view of a character they will ask for a “POV”. This is also known as subjective camera. An example is the shooter’s view down the barrel of the gun or the view through a pair of binoculars.
“Undercrank” and “overcrank” are film terms from the beginning of cinema when camera operators hand cranked the film through the camera gate. Cranking it faster (overcranking) than normal speed (at the time 16fps) produced slow motion when played back on a regular speed projector. Cranking slower (undercranking) produced accelerated motion.
Control over film rates arrived with variable speed motors on film cameras, which allowed operators to set the film speed precisely and the iris as required.
Today’s professional video cameras can shoot in variable frame rate mode to produce over and undercranking effects.
Composition can be about designing the shot. Where is the emphasis or weight, and what does the director want the audience to be looking at? Is the composition pleasing?
- The language here will be about “do you want it balanced, unbalanced” and about how much “negative space” (empty space around shapes) to include in a composition.
- Or, composition can be about the variety of shot sizes needed for coverage.
- When ordering up shot sizes the director will use the familiar film language conventions of wide shot, medium shot, medium close up or head and shoulders. Shooting a conversation of two characters across the table, the director can ask for a “master” where we see both people act out the main action of an entire scene.
- Cover shots will include “over-the-shoulder” shots of both characters as they repeat the scene. For over-the-shoulder shots the options “clean” or “dirty” (with or without foreground) may be used.
- Most likely the director will also ask for “answering close-ups” where each actor will perform the scene once more, this time in a more tightly framed composition.
- An “extreme close-up” example is when one eye fills the entire frame.
Visual Storytelling is Collaboration
Visual storytelling is about the mood and tone the director wants to achieve to support the dramatic content of a scene. And the DOP gives it to him. The DOP will design the shot and the director will respond to the DOP’s visual interpretation of the screenplay or the director’s storyboard.
Visual storytelling is most effective in a film when director and DOP are collaborators, both trying to achieve the look and feel of a film. The celebrated on-set relationship between deep focus legend Gregg Toland and wunderkind director Orson Wells comes to mind. Understanding the emotional content of every scene is probably more important than being able to understand the on-set chatter, although that’s a good start.
Peter Biesterfeld is a documentary maker, freelance writer and Professor of Documentary Production.