If you’re like us, and you spend lots of time studying the “rules” of video and filmmaking, you may find yourself frustrated watching professional work. That’s because it’s quite common for professional filmmakers to break the rules. And while it’s normal for the pros to intentionally break the rules with good results, what’s frustrating is when it’s clear they’re breaking the rules unintentionally. Of course everyone makes mistakes, but the best way to avoid them is to know what to watch out for in the first place.
By following these three rules, you’ll be ahead of countless highly paid professionals in Hollywood.
Crossing the Line of Action
Breaking the 180 degree rule is one of the most common mistakes filmmakers make (see the video below). The general concept is that when there’s a line of action, the camera shouldn’t cross that line except to create a sense of confusion or disorientation for the viewer. This imaginary line is usually drawn from one character’s eyes to another’s during dialog scene or the direction of movement for a character in motion. For example, if two characters are speaking to one another, with Character A on the left and Character B on the right, Character A should always look to the right and Character B should always look to the left. Every time the character crosses to the other side of the imaginary line, the direction the characters look is reversed.
When a character is in motion, they should always travel in the same direction from shot to shot, for example screen left to screen right, unless you want them to look like their going in circles.
This is an easy one to mess up. Sometimes a director intends for a transitionary shot or sequence to be inserted to cover up the reversal of direction, but the editor doesn’t get the note. In other cases, the plan changes in post.
Another cause of this mistake is going into a shoot without a storyboard or complete shot list. If the plan is to get a medium shot of Character A delivering his or her lines, without additional screen direction it can be easy to overlook which direction the character is supposed to face. As shoots run long and people become impatient, it can be easy to neglect the fine details.
You see this mistake all the time, usually in corporate videos and commercials where someone is addressing the viewer directly. The sequence usually starts with someone speaking directly to the viewer, with their eyes look right into the lens. Often you see cuts between medium and wide shots, which is a good way to seamlessly edit together many takes into one good one.
The mistake comes when the script calls for a shot where camera angle changes but the subject is still looking where the first camera once was. In this shot, the subject is no longer looking directly into the lens of the active camera. This changes the viewers simulated role from being a participant in the video to a fly on the wall. When the subject on screen is speaking and looking directly into the lens, you the viewer are the subject of his or her attention. But when the subject isn’t looking into the lens, you the viewer are simply an observer of a conversation between the subject and someone or something else.
This abrupt change of roles isn’t consciously felt by the viewer, but it does inhibit the viewers emotional connection with the subject and their message.
Not Shooting for Graphics
This is a common mistake among smaller productions, where people are forced to pull double-duty as shooter and editor.
The best on-screen graphics are done deliberately. If text is intended to go over video, the video is hopefully shot specifically with those graphics in mind. This means a portion of the screen is designated for graphics and the camera operator leave that portion of the frame as negative space.
Of course, that doesn’t always happen. The results are graphics that are placed over visually busy background video. The graphics end up being hard to read or require drop shadows and intense colors to stand out.
Common Mistakes Avoided
Like most video mistakes, falling victim to one of these won’t doom your work. In fact, most viewers probably won’t even notice. It’s when mistakes start to stack up that things get messy. On the other hand, as your work becomes more deliberate, you become more conscious of how every decision impacts how the viewer perceives the story; it’s then that you’re truly on your way to being a master of your craft.