There’s always the issues

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There’s always the issues of quality, but you can spot ‘real’ movies even when recorded on ancient grotty VHS. The movie signature is all about conventions, and if you break them, you must do it in certain ways. Pick your favourite movie – anything really, but probably something from a major director. Select a scene, and convert what you see to a shot list with timing.You will probably note many things – the most obvious one being the framing and camera movement. Count how many time (if any) you see a zoom. Probably there won’t be any. The camera angles may change and the camera might track in towards or away from the subject, but it won’t zoom. It’s all to do with perspective – a zoom produces a closer picture, but the foreground and background sizes remain locked together. With a track, the foreground and background sizes change. If the camera is on a jib or boom, changes in height are not that noticable, unless there is something in the foreground – so check shots that have vertical movement to see what things are in the frame, and what happens to them. Check when the director cuts and when they pan – remember that movies mainly use a single camera, so reverse angles might mean a re-light for the alternative angle. Everybody is familiar with Steadicam type shots, but Cinema Verite where the camera does show movement is an alternative. It isn’t, though, an excuse for bad camerawork – it’s a chance for the camear to become ‘part’ of the scene, rather than being a fly on the wall, looking into a scene. If you want to look at techniques, then old Hitchcock movies are great – packed full of pretty obvious techniques. Even sci-fi films are good technique sources – the baddies get shot from below, with the camera below the eye-line, with the goodies shown from eye level or above in the fight scenes. Look too for wide angle lenses in close, distorting the faces. People make a lot out of depth of field, but in general, most movies have the entire depth in focus, unless they really want to grab your attention onto certain aspects of what is going on. Sometimes they do have shallow depth of field, but it’s always for a reason. It isn’t always the background that’s out of focus. As I’m writing this, Star Wars is on TV and there’s a scen during the battle where the main characters are grouped together in a control room – there are characters at the edges in the foreground and they are soft – and make a kind of ‘gateway’ into the tension in the centre. (Just saw a video vision mixer/switcher being used to fire the Death Star – never noticed that upteen years ago when I was a kid!) Back to Star Wars – some really nice tracking shots at the end – something easily done. This takes me on to the other pro technique – decent, rock steady pans tilts and jibs, no wobbles. If you have a decent, level floor, see if you can borrow things like flat trolleys – the DIY stores have them. Set up a tripod on one, and a little stool for the cameraman, and get someone to push it around – the pictures have a different quality.

Boiling it down to basics is quite easy. In schools and colleges an early assignment given to media students is frequently along these lines.

Tell a story – maximum running time 3 minutes.

NO editing at all – start and stop the camera only.

NO hand held cameras

Apart from one shot up to 20 seconds, no other shot more than 10 seconds in length

NO zooming in or out whatsoever – Camera on widest setting, if you need to get in close, move the camera

This makes you plan and more importantly, think!

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