How DID They do that?

On April Fool’s Day or any time to be silly, what better way to amuse your friends than getting a little giddy with the camera and going a little wacko with your video?

To help you get in touch with that inner prankster, let's break down some of those camera tricks and effects we've watched for years to discover how we can create the same great effects, without investing in a bunch of new and expensive equipment.

Shadows and Light

Since the days of Film Noir, we have seen how extreme light manipulation can make a shot provocative. Whether flooding your shot in harsh light or moving your key light to the side and allowing the other side to drop into darkness, strategically manipulated light can add mystery and suspense to your video composition. In fact, experimenting with just one major light source often yields fascinating results. Place an object (a ball works well) in a "floating in white" space and watch the shadows move as you move the light source from left to right. If you recreate this effect in the right scenes, you can suggest the passage of time via moving shadows. Try moving the light over the object and then behind it, or place the light on the floor in front of the object and watch the shadow fly up onto the wall behind the object. This technique can be useful in a variety of ways, not only demonstrating passage of time, but also showing how lack of light can often make as strong a statement as what is in the light. Shoot all these options and study them. A Director of Photography is as much a person who knows how to light for the effect, as he is someone who understands the camera.

The Push Zoom or Pull Zoom

This trick has been a favorite ever since Alfred Hitchcock created the spinning sensation (vertigo) experienced by Jimmy Stewart, in his 1958 film, Vertigo. It has since appeared in Jaws when the Sheriff first spots the shark attacking the swimmer in the water. If you go back and look at the film, you will see that as the shark attacks, Spielberg uses the "Pull/Push" with eerie effectiveness. As well as in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring the first time Frodo encounters the "Ring Wraiths."

The Push/Pull effect is created by moving the camera closer to the shooting subject while simultaneously zooming out, or moving the camera further from the subject while zooming in. This effect is a fun one, as the subject appears to stay static in size in relation to the shifting background. The Push/Pull gets its name from a grip pushing or pulling the cameraperson on a dolly while he or she zooms in the opposite direction, either in or out.

Forced Perspective

Speaking of shifting spatial relations, by positioning items in the foreground and mixing them with items in the background you can create the illusion of the foreground component being considerably larger than the background component. The old Kids in the Hall gag with the fingers in the foreground "pinching the head" of someone in the background is accomplished with this kind of forced perspective. Place the fingers right in front of the lens and the "victim" about 8 feet away from the camera, watching the eyepiece or a monitor, move the fingers so they seem to "pinch" the head of the other person. Anything placed directly in front of the camera lens will seem huge compared to elements in the background. This is how Bilbo Baggins looked so small in his house when Gandalf visited.

Vertical Angle: a man appearing to be climbing a red brick wall
Forced Perspective: the man is crawl-walking along a red brick sidewalk and the camera is canted to make him appear as if he’s vertical
Vertical Angle: a man appearing to be climbing a red brick wall
Vertical Angle: a man appearing to be climbing a red brick wall

Wall Climbing

This effect was made famous by the original Batman TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward, when they would scale a wall with their Bat-a-rangs, only to have a celebrity cameo pop out of the window. It probably won't surprise you to know the actors weren't really climbing up a wall. To create this effect the camera was turned on it's side and the caped crusaders moved from right to left on "the wall" as the celebrity opened the "window" and stood up, giving the appearance of "peering out the window." A properly placed fan, blowing in the direction of the climbers will help their clothes to look as if they are hanging down, and the use of fishing-line can help to create the appearance of "gravity." Of course, thanks to this handy effect, we can all continue to live up to our superhero fantasies of masterfully scaling a wall with indisputable finesse.

Split Screen: A man appears to be coming right out of a pole
Split Screen: A man appears to be coming right out of a pole

Split Screen

Another frequently encountered effect is the "split screen shot." If the shot truly needs to be perfectly divided in a 50-50 split, hook the camera to a monitor and draw a line on the screen with a magic marker, (make sure your marker will wipe off the screen easily when you're done), or mark the screen with a piece of tape. This will allow you to always be certain that your shots will be composed in the proper split. If you are shooting to eventually post a phone conversation on two sides of the screen, you probably want the two environments to look different but match in terms of size. Again, mark directly on the screen of the monitor the rough size of the first shot. When you shoot the second image, use the reference on the screen to match relative size.

Fight Scene

Staging a John Wayne-type fight scene can be great fun and is reasonably easy to execute. Avoid shooting anything but the establishment shots from the side with the talent standing in parallel. Over-the-shoulder shots are the best for disguising the actual distance between the fist and the face. Start by shooting over-the-shoulder of the actor delivering the blow. John Wayne always claimed that he was involved in creating the "Hollywood punch." This is when the person doing the punch cocks the fist back behind himself or herself in a wind up that would never work in real life, because the man who reared back or telegraphed first, would be the first man down. However on camera, this "cocking back" motion makes the punch look much more dynamic when it's shot. If the cocked fist is up by the ear of the punching actor, it will come directly into the foreground of your over-the-shoulder shot. As the punch is thrown you can allow as much as three inches between the fist and the face and as long as the actor receiving the blow creates a believable "head take" (snapping his head, in the direction of the punch). Your next cut should be an over-the-shoulder shot of the actor receiving the blow. This allows the actor to turn to the camera after being punched and have him react as if hit hard. You edit in the Foley or sound effect of the blow later that really completes the illusion.

Earthquake or "Hang on Capt. Kirk"

The earliest Star Trek episodes tended toward two truisms: One, if there was a crew person, other than Scotty, wearing a red shirt they were destined not to survive the episode and two, sometime during the episode the star ship would be attacked and the actors would fly from left to right as they were fired upon by a Klingon. It prompts the question- if they are in the future and on an advanced mode of space transportation- "Why aren't they wearing seatbelts?" Regardless, there were no seatbelts and as a result, everyone would inevitably fly around the bridge nearly every episode. This "futuristic" technical savvy was accomplished by simply tilting the camera on the tripod to a hard left Dutch angle and then a hard right Dutch angle while the actors scrambled left and right. When I've shot the effect in the past I literally found myself shouting, "left, left, left, left, right, right, right right" so the actors would know in which direction to move in order to match the camera. For a more dramatic effect, try attaching the camera to Bungee cords and hanging it, creating what is called a "shaky cam." The shooter simply bounces the suspended camera slightly while the actors "vibrate," "bounce" and hold onto things, creating "earthquake effects."

A stedi-cam can also create an earthquake effect if the operator simply bounces and shakes the camera while the actors react. It may take some practice to get the look right, since the shaking can look too hard or too soft while the actors react.

Go Create Illusions!

You now know a variety of fun techniques that are sure to add a little zip to your camera work. I experimented in a low key way with a personal camera while working in a professional setting, to help perfect my own ability to recreate these effects, and met with much success. So go ahead, try them on your own, impress your friends, and then whenever you need to use them when it counts you'll have them right there in your back pocket. Have fun!

Randal K. West is the Vice President/Creative Director for a DRTV full service advertising agency.

Sidebar:

Green Screening

A couple of years ago I was directing a stage production of Peter Pan when the producers informed me that our theatre would be unable to support the rigging necessary for "flying". I had a cast of over 45 kids who would be very disappointed, not to mention the expectations of an audience that would have a hard time getting excited about seeing a "grounded" version of Peter Pan. I went back to my Television Production guys and asked, "Can we make actors fly?" They told me that if we green screened the actors and then created video, we could project it into the theatre during the production, and it would probably work. We brought the cast into our green screen environment and recreated flying movements by moving camera angles, doing zoom ins and outs, and panning left and right over them. We then had the actors lie on a large piece of green paper and shot them from above while they did flying and "swimming" moves. We added this to our other flying footage and then found existing footage of airplanes passing through clouds and looking down to the ground. We edited the green-screened footage into the stock footage and Peter Pan magic was created. The audience seemed delighted every night when the video projector kicked on and they watched the local talent "flying off to Neverland."

Many PC based editing systems offer green screen, blue screen or luma keying options. Remember to light the background as evenly as possible to help limit shadows and be sure to keep the subject far enough from the screen so you avoid throwing green bounce light on them. Be sure your actors are not wearing any colors that will be removed and watch out for eye colors!

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