Lifting secrets from previous artists is an ancient and honorable theft. Painters have done it for centuries and playwrights preserve a larcenous tradition reaching back through Shakespeare to Sophocles. Movie makers too have studied and learned from their forebears and so can you.
So sit back and haul out the popcorn as we visit eight great film makers to demonstrate what you can learn from the masters.
In most respects, Charles Spencer Chaplin was a genius who made movies rather than a genius at making movies. Unlike Buster Keaton, he apparently had little interest in the medium for its own sake, but only for its ability to record and display the antics of Charlie Chaplin.
Though Chaplin used closeups with telling effect, he usually worked in wider shots because he performed with his entire body and wanted the camera to include most or all of it. And that, precisely, is what you can learn from this master: as Yosemite Sam commands on the mud flaps, Back Off!
A great lesson, especially if you tape activities like dance, figure skating and tennis. Sure, grab closeups to use as cutaways, but otherwise restrain your instinct to move close. Nothing infuriates a viewer like a serve, an arabesque, or a fishing cast that’s half cut off by the frame. Like the master Chaplin, know when to put the whole body on screen.
Speaking of the frame, Alfred Hitchcock was a genius at turning this unbreakable border around the image to his advantage.
Having started his career as an art director, he knew how to compose images within that frame; but his lesson for us is his skill at using that border to keep things out of sight–until he could use them to scare our pants off.
The (in)famous shower scene in Psycho is the most obvious example, because we never actually see Janet Leigh get stabbed. In shot after famous shot, we see flashing steel, thrusting arm, wet skin, and, ultimately, bloodstained water, but the knife that’s presumably sinking into flesh is always kept outside the frame. The two-edged moral here: 1) it’s more tasteful to leave violence to the imagination and 2) the imagination will make it all the more violent.
A less obvious example from the same film is Martin Balsam’s walk up the gothic staircase, at the top of which he is suddenly stabbed and falls back down to his death. Hitchcock frames the actor tightly because the audience knows that menace lurks somewhere in that house. Being prevented from seeing it approach makes that menace all the more scary. Hitchcock’s lesson: control what’s outside your frame as well as what’s within it.
If Chaplin included everything important in the frame and Hitchcock cunningly excluded crucial things, John Ford went them one better by controlling everything in every shot so tightly that he was said to edit in the camera. To prevent producers and other subspecies from mucking up his movies he shot few extra angles and so little cover material that the editor had almost no options: he or she was forced to assemble the movie exactly as Ford had visualized it.
Fully half a director’s job is to put the camera in the right place with the right lens framing the right subject for each and every shot.
And there is this master’s lesson for us: visualization. Like his colleague Hitchcock, Ford made the movie in his head before he rolled the camera. You too will get much better results if you build the finished video in your imagination before you shoot. That way you’re more likely to capture everything you need to build an effective program. Fully half a director’s job is to put the camera in the right place with the right lens framing the right subject for each and every shot. Only by pre-visualizing how each shot will fit in the finished video can you do that job effectively.
British director Michael Powell is not as famous as Ford or Hitchcock (except for one or two films like The Red Shoes) but he was a master of his craft who understood that movies are illusions constructed of many small pieces.
In one famous case he used this knowledge to “move” an actor 500 miles from his actual place. The movie was shooting on location in Scotland but the star was inconveniently stuck in London because he was acting daily in a play there.
To solve the problem, Powell used a double for wider shots at the location, took the closeups of his star in a London studio, and edited the two together to create a single performance.
His lesson for us? Movie space and time are completely artificial: you can shape them like wet clay. The rank amateur merely records events when and where they’re happening. The skilled videographer, by contrast, bends space and time at will. Of all the special effects developed for movies, this manipulation of space and time is the most universally used (and probably the cheapest).
Disney’s genius was for cartoons, right? So what’s he doing here among live-action masters?
Making music, that’s what. From Steamboat Willy to Hercules, Disney movies have relied heavily on the support of their music. Sure, everyone remembers the songs, but they don’t often notice the underscoring–the orchestral music designed to enhance the action on-screen. If you have a CD of Aladdin or The Lion King, listen to the instrumental parts near the end of the disk. Better yet, watch the escape from the cave or the final fight with Scar with the sound off, to see how music enriches the effect.
You too can use music this way, especially where your original camera audio is less than impressive (or even interesting). From Mozart to Chuck Berry, the immortals offer any kind of music you can think of to enhance your production. (Unless your opus is strictly for private, personal use, be sure to get the music rights, okay? See the January 1995 issue of Videomaker for tips on how to do this.)
From scores, we turn to Scorcese; and though you could base a quarter course on the varied accomplishments of this movie master, his signature may well be the moving camera, gliding, swooping, sneaking, poking into unexpected places.
We all pan the camera around while shooting, and we often walk or ride while handholding. But where Scorcese’s moves reveal one batch of carefully presented information after another, ours are just, well, moves–the irritable motion of a camera that keeps on moving because it doesn’t really know where it wants to look.
What Scorcese can teach us is that a great moving shot is a succession of images that need to be connected more tightly than separate shots edited together. What is harder to learn (because his art conceals it) is that good moving shots are more difficult to pull off than successive angles that cover the same material. They are in fact the direct opposite of the boring moving shot made because it was quicker than planning and shooting separate setups.
If Scorcese moves, George Lucas edits–hoo boy, does he edit! Half the reason people went back to see Star Wars again was that they missed some of it the first time.
Lucas is a master of fast-paced cutting. He holds a shot just long enough to let you get the gist of it, but not long enough to take in the details, at least on the first viewing. And no matter how expensive a set or visual effect might be, he never lets it linger on screen just to show it off. (If you want to see this fault at its lead weight worst, check out sodden epics like Cleopatra.)
There’s a two-fold moral here. First, your viewers can “read” the information in a scene very quickly and secondly, once they’ve read it, they want to move on. While you’re rhapsodizing on and on about your Technicolor sunset, your audience is muttering been there, done that.
And now, a word about John Hughes. If the acme of ‘forties Hollywood craft is Casablanca, then its modern equivalent may be Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which Hughes wrote, produced and directed.
To the untrained eye it’s just a movie: warm, funny, entertaining to be sure, but no big deal. To the professional, however, it’s a modest masterpiece. Throughout the film Hughes uses a wide range of camera angles, lenses and cutting techniques with almost offhand precision. (By itself, the race to get home at the story’s climax is a textbook demonstration of screen direction, intercutting three sets of people while moving them consistently from different origins toward a common finish line.)
But for all its impressive command of craft, Hughes’ style is the opposite of gee-whiz bravura film making. In fact, it’s so good it’s nearly invisible, creating a film without a detectable surface–an apparently transparent window on a story about young Ferris Bueller.
And there’s the moral: whoopee digital effects and MTV-style edits are a cheap way to get the viewer’s attention. It’s far better to conceal your art and let the program’s content speak for itself.
So buy or rent Ferris Bueller for a whole film school in a box, and while you’re at it pick up some movies by our other masters too. They have a lot to teach you.