The camera is your audience's eyes into the world you capture. Every shot you take, every frame that’s recorded should drive your story. Learning to manipulate and control the camera's perspective to enhance your storytelling will keep your audience engaged and greatly increase the professional look of your projects.
Controlling your audience's perspective can be challenging when working with a limited budget. When shooting a scripted piece or a documentary style project, you may not always have as much control as you’d like over things that affect the tone of your shots such as lighting, locations and production design. You may have little to no money for costumes and props, you may be limited to the location where the subjects of your documentary happen to be, or you might just barely have enough lighting gear to get a properly exposed shot. By controlling your camera's perspective, you can drive your audience's reaction to images involving techniques that can be attained on almost any budget.
The Subtle Traditions of Visual Language
Just as painters often prefer a certain type of composition to convey a particular emotion, cinematographers have developed a complex visual language for storytelling over the years. This language is told through the use of color, contrast, point of view, focus and motion. While at first it may seem that feature films have a uniform look, on close inspection you’ll notice that modern cinema horror films look very different from romantic comedies (unless you're watching a film like “Warm Bodies” that crosses both genres.)
The styles that make up this visual storytelling system weren’t formed in an arbitrary manner. They are the result of learning how people react to images. Many of the great cinematographers have studied the works of master painters and artists from traditions that date back centuries and have incorporated these techniques into how they shoot. This isn’t to say that the language of visual storytelling hasn’t evolved. If you watch scenes from a few thrillers from the 1940s and a few made in the last few years, you’ll see that they share some similarities; however, many things have changed in the way the genre is now commonly shot.
Audiences have become in-tune with the common techniques used by cinematographers when shooting certain types of stories. If you can bring some of these techniques into your productions, you can more easily and effectively draw the audience into your story.
Finding Your Story
The type of story you're going to tell affects how you're going to shoot it. To start, you need to figure out what type of story you're telling. The common style of shooting a martial arts action film is much different than that of a historical drama. Even if you're shooting a documentary, you need to think about what the story will be about. Both “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” and “Mad Hot Ballroom” were shot very effectively but very differently.
Think of and watch stories that are similar to yours. Even if you have a story that doesn’t fit into one genre, watch stories that have similar elements to yours. So if you have a sword and sandal and zombie film set in the Roman Empire, watch things like “Spartacus” and “Dawn of the Dead” then, find the parts of your story that make it unique. Highlight them with your use of camera.
Learning to manipulate and control the camera's perspective to enhance your storytelling will keep your audience engaged.
Strive for consistent execution of technique over originality. Westerns still find an audience, and they're not watching them to see something new. You’ll find that as you learn and master the technical skills of controlling your shots, your own point of view and sense of story will cause you to occasionally take a small break from visual tradition. It’s often these subtle differences that can have the most impact on one’s own visual style.
The Elements of Camera Perspective
What your camera sees, your audience sees. In order to use your camera's perspective to support your story, you must learn how to manipulate the different elements of camera perspective. These elements are: frame rate, aspect ratio, field of view, focus, depth of field, point of view, angles, framing, movement and speed.
Frame Rate and Aspect Ratio
Sadly, for many productions, the decisions on which aspect ratio or frame rate to use are not creative but based on the final distribution of the project or the technical limitations of the equipment being used. Even online, the maximum frame rate supported by many video hosts is 30fps. Most affordable cameras will only shoot 24, 25 or 30fps.
Aspect ratio for most modern video gear is 1.78:1 (16X9) although some cameras do support the film standard of 1.85:1 (Academy), but wider formats like 2.35:1 (scope) that are popular for big epic films aren’t supported outside high end cinema cameras without losing resolution from either cropping or stretching a narrower image.
Field of View
Everything that falls within the frame of the image that a camera captures is its field of view. A camera's field of view is determined by two factors, the cameras distance from the subject and the focal length of the lens. Using a lens with a short focal length gives you a wide field of view allowing you to capture a lot of background with your subject. Lenses with wide fields of view also decrease the perception of camera shake making them a popular choice for hand-held action shots. A lens with a long focal length gives you a narrow field of view allowing for close-up shots to be achieved with the camera further away from the subject. Lenses with narrow fields of view are also used to reduce depth of field and make the subject stand out from the background.
There are different types of common shots in production that are named to describe their field of view in relation to the subject. These shots include: extra-wide, wide, medium, close-up and extra close-up. Some wide shots are referred to as establishing shots because they include the area around the subject(s) and give a sense of placement in an environment. Without establishing shots, the audience can feel like they don’t know where the story is taking place. It’s not uncommon to shift back and forth from a medium shot, where the subject is framed from roughly the waist to the top of the head, to a close up, where the subject is framed from roughly the upper chest to the top of the head, but the field of view in these different shots should stay the same.
Consistency of field of view in the different type of shots you take can be very important in maintaining the mood and tone of your story. If you frame your subjects with all the close-ups and all the medium shots with the same field of view, it helps to convey a sense of stability to the mood of a scene; then, if there’s a dramatic change in the story, you can break from this pattern of shooting to help enhance the dramatic shift. Conversely, if the tone of the story is even and the field of view in the same type of shots is constantly changing, it can draw your audience out of the story. This type of inconsistency of field of view is often pointed out as a sign of a low quality or “B grade” production.
Focus and Depth of Field
Most often you’ll want the subject of your shot to be in focus, but you may want to have them out of focus or going in and out of focus to support their confusion, injury or some other type of trauma. Use of focus in shots to bring emphasis to certain areas of the frame can be controlled by changing the depth of field. A shot with a large depth of field has objects in the foreground, midground and background in focus. A shot with a shallow depth of field has only the mid-ground in focus; if your subject is the only thing in the mid-ground of this type of shot, they will really stand out. The human eye is naturally drawn to things that are in focus, so shots with characters in a shallow depth of field have become very popular in modern dramas and romantic comedies. A shallow depth of field can also be used to hide things in the background that wouldn’t look appealing in focus. In action films, the hero is almost always visually portrayed as being in command of his environment so only shots with medium and large depths of field are typically used for the hero.
Point of View
Point of view is when the camera shoots a scene (or single shot) as though we are seeing it from the subject's perspective. That subject could be a person, animal or even a paper clip. Often the point of view of a camera can affect how people interpret the scene. Lead POV shots have existed since the silent movie era. These shots take you into the perspective or eyes of the main character. Since the film The Blair Witch Project, filmmakers have even used Lead POV shots as the sole camera point of view. Security Cameras provide the second most common use of point of view in feature films; however, the coolest and least-used is the point of view of a car hood or bumper. Used extensively in the 1970s, it has become a staple of car chase scenes since then.
Angles can convey things about characters subconsciously. For instance, when the triumphant hero steps up to save the day if a low angle is used its suggests that the character is noble, brave and powerful. Low angles can also often give subjects an overpowering feeling making them either larger than life or menacing. High angles often make people seem small, weak or insignificant so if our hero was shot from above, we might think him afraid, panicked or incapable.
Eye-level angles or standard angles make for more neutral interpretations and often seem more personal. Most romantic comedies are shot from this angle. Low angles that are not level are known as Dutch angles. Dutch angles are commonly used in thrillers and horror films to portray danger as they tend to give the audience a feeling of unease.
Something as seemingly simple as where the subject is in the frame and where they are looking can have great impact on your production. In TV news and commercials, the subject is often in the center of the frame and looking directly at the camera lens. In film, subjects are usually off center and rarely, if ever, look straight into the camera. This type of framing is based on the rule of thirds which divides the screen into nine parts with three horizontal planes and three vertical. In film, characters are shifted either to the right or left side of the screen which would be vertical planes one and three. When people are framed in the center, vertical plane two, it is used to break the fourth wall or make the audience feel uneasy depending on the context. Sometimes in film, you even see situations where the actors are almost out of frame or only their shadows are in frame to suggest hidden actions or their withdrawal from a scene or situation.
How you move the camera needs to match your story as well. If you're shooting a film set in the French royal court in the 18th century, then lots of elaborate dolly and crane moves may work well. Likewise, if your telling a gritty inner-city drama, then slightly shaky hand-held footage may be well received with your audience. If you swapped the two styles, the audience may not be as accepting of the stories being told in a visually, unfamiliar way.
There are many different terms for camera movement and they are often related to the different types of camera support being used.
Movement for tripods is pan (twist tripod head left or right) and tilt (angle the tripod head up or down). Since a person with a hand-held camera can mimic the tripod movements, the same terms are used for hand-held shots.
Dolly or slider movement is dolly in (moves closer to the subject), dolly out (moves away from the subject), truck (moves the camera left or right), tracking shot (the camera moves with the movement of the subject while maintaining the same size field of view. It can be done hand-held as well.)
Movement for crane or jib is boom up or down (tilts the arm up or down.) Cranes and jibs are sometimes called booms.
Zoom lens movement is zoom in (make the focal length longer) or zoom out (makes the focal length shorter). While a zoom in or out has a similar effect as a dolly in or out, the depth of field of the shot changes with the zoom; additionally, most zoom lenses distort the image when zooming which also alters the look of the shot. A zoom in or dolly in on a subject's face can make their facial expression more noticeable.
Effects like slow motion or time lapse affect the way events are perceived by the audience. Slow motion created by filming in high frame rates and playing back at a normal speed can be used to achieve a number of different responses and are currently seen most frequently in action films to emphasize a spectacular action from a hero such as a spartan leaping dramatically into the air as he is about to strike down his enemy. Time lapse is created by taking stills or video footage over a long period of time and compressing them to a short period of time. This can make people feel as if time is flying by or can signal a dramatic transition. A common example would be seeing the phases of the moon rapidly pass to suggest a month of time has passed in the story.
One of the best ways to learn how to control your audience's perspective with your camera work is to study other visuals of great stories that are similar to yours and see how the cinematographer accomplished it. Most film genres have films that have revolutionized the way that type of film was shot such as “Stage Coach” for westerns, “Blade Runner” for science fiction and “Die Hard” for action films. Studying these types of films to help you understand what shot choices were used to drive these stories will help you to make similar decisions on your projects. Of course, there's no substitute for hands-on experience, so make sure to practice what you have watched.
Forced Perspective and Depth of Field Visual Effects
Forced perspective is the illusion that two objects are of the same scale and exist in the same plane of depth. Before CGI, model makers would create elaborate sets with holes or “windows.” Placing this set extremely close to the camera they would stage the actors far away into the background. This gave the illusion that the actors were indeed inside this model and the model was real. Another use of forced perspective was making objects appear bigger or smaller. A staple of pre-CGI sci-fi films, this effect was achieved by staging an actor (or object) close to the camera to make them look larger than life and placing an object (or actor) far in the background to make them look small compared to the foreground object.
Forced Perspective with depth of field can also be used for in-camera visual effects. In the most common application, the camera zooms in completely and foreshortens the depth of field. Then actors who are either running, driving or standing stationary react to a series of cues such as pyrotechnics. On camera, the actors appear right in the middle of an explosion or crash when in reality they can be several hundred feet away. Due to the the perspective of the camera and the foreshortened depth of field, the audience experiences the illusion that this is all happening in the same plane of existence.
With advances in CGI and the continued presence of 3D, forced perspective and depth of field techniques are now practical effects used by mostly low budget filmmakers; however big budget directors like Peter Jackson and Christopher Nolan still use them today.
Odin Lindblom is an award-winning editor and cinematographer whose work includes film, commercials and corporate video.