Fully half a video director’s job is staging action for the screen. If you think that’s no big deal to accomplish, you’re ripe to join the list of big shot Broadway stage directors who failed miserably in Hollywood. Directing for the screen means setting up the camera at the right place with the right lens aimed in the right direction at the right time, and then moving subjects in front of it. Two inescapable conditions complicate this basic process.
First, each shot is just one tiny project fragment that must match the preceding and following shots in some ways, but contrast with them in other ways. In addition, because the screen is essentially flat, all apparent depth upon it is an illusion painstakingly created by the director and videographer.
Videomaker has examined the director’s many jobs we’ve covered continuity and screen direction as well as camera angles. (We’ve also examined the other half of a director’s craft, working with talent). This time around, we’ll focus on the specifics of staging action for the flat world of the video screen. We’ll look at four major directing tools: point of view, composition, perspective and movement.
POV and Composition
Point of view, or POV, is the vantage point from which a camcorder records a piece of action. The first component of POV is subject size, or apparent distance from the camera: extreme long shot, extreme closeup or anything in between. Subject size is a key tool for emphasis, as you’ll see.
POV also includes the horizontal angle, from front shot through profile (side shot) and all the way around to the back. In closeups, a front angle is more open, a three-quarter view has more depth, and a profile confers a formal, iconic quality (look at Clint Eastwood’s use of profile closeups).
Vertical angle is equally important. A low angle (from below), tends to empower its subject, while a high angle does just the opposite. A still higher (bird’s-eye) angle lends a feeling of distant detachment.
Respecting image size, we said apparent distance because size is determined as much by lens focal length as by the distance between camera and subject. Because wide-angle lenses exaggerate perspective and movement while telephoto lenses suppress them, lens choice has a great effect on depth, emphasis, energy and mood.
Once you’ve established a POV, you organize the elements within your shot through the art of composition. Here, we’re mainly interested in composition as it applies to action occurring within the frame. With this in mind, remember that there are two opposite approaches to composition, two-dimensional and three-dimensional.
Two-dimensional composition arranges pictorial elements on the flat picture plane, often using telephoto lens settings to suppress apparent depth and emphasize the screen surface. The result is a rather distant, designed look that can enhance formal moods.
Three-dimensional composition uses wide-angle lenses to enhance apparent depth, changing the screen from a surface to an invisible window looking out on a world beyond. This approach lures viewers into the screen’s world and helps involve them in the action.
In addition to wide-angle lenses, 3D composition depends on six ancient techniques that painters have long called perspective.
The six perspective techniques are: size (the bigger it is, the closer it is); overlap (a subject in front must be closer than the subject it partly covers); convergence (parallel lines seem to meet in the distance); position (the higher it is on the screen, the farther away it is); resolution (the more visible the detail, the closer it is), and color (the more washed out, the farther away). Staging action mainly involves size, convergence and overlap (though David Lean uses resolution brilliantly in Lawrence of Arabia, when Omar Sharif starts as a wavering dot on the desert horizon, then slowly resolves into a man on a horse as he approaches the camera).
Size is obviously important in staging action because the bigger the subject is, the more visually important it becomes. Novice directors, however, often slight overlap. Note how often professionals use over-the-shoulder two-shots, in which the subject speaking is partly overlapped by the head and shoulder of the person who is listening. In addition to enhancing depth, OTS shots, as they’re sometimes called, keep both subjects in the viewer’s mind while directing attention to the one who is more important.
Converging (diagonal) lines suggests movement toward and away from the camera, and emphasizes apparent depth. Psychologically, diagonal lines feel more energetic because they seem like they’re falling on the picture surface, while vertical and horizontal lines are either standing or resting. As you stage movement for the camera, diagonal motion feels dynamic. And of course, moving subjects closer to the camera increases their apparent size and importance.
Subjects are not the only moving parts of a shot. Usually the camera moves as well, whether dramatically in a tracking dolly shot or subtly as the videographer corrects the composition to match small subject movements.
In staging camera movements, a few tips may prove useful. First, make sure the move is motivated either by subject movement or by the need to look at a different subject without cutting to a new shot.
Next, make sure that the move begins with one strong composition and ends decisively with another, even stronger one, if practical. Without consciously noticing, the audience will feel a sense of order and correctness about the move. Classic Hollywood technique demands a static opening before the move begins; but modern practice often starts a shot with the camera already in motion. If you want your moves to feel muy suave, drive them like a car, accelerating smoothly to cruising speed and then slowing smoothly to a stop.
Finally, avoid movement for its own sake. The 360-degree dolly shot around the embracing lovers has long-since become a cliche and a show-off demonstration of technique. On the other hand, the Steadicam shots used so often in The West Wing TV series carry the viewer with the often-harried characters as they surge around the busy corridors of the White House.
For another set of moves worth studying, note how the roaming camera in Shakespeare in Love plunges you right into the teeming streets and alleys of Elizabethan London.
Staging and Style
Staging for the screen is the main source of directorial style. Some directors turn the video camera into a character, constantly moving around and through the action. Others allow the lens to sit quietly and record movement that ebbs and flows through the frame.
Some situations (like fights or chases) demand an intensely 3D look, full of low POVs, wide-angle lenses and dynamic movement toward and away from the camera. Others need the serenity and detachment of 2D staging, in which telephoto lenses and a stationary camcorder paint evolving compositions on the surface of the screen.
But whether an artist is Picasso or Dali, exactly the same painting tools are used. And whether you’re as dynamic as Martin Scorcese, or as deliberate as Ingmar Bergman, you’ll achieve your personal style through your handling of your directing tools: POV, composition, perspective and movement.