Scots Mile Productions

Shooting Aesthetics: the art of shooting great footage:

(from DV Revolution Report Issue #14)

There is a story about an excellent photographer being invited for dinner by an acquaintance. Looking through some of the artists' work, the host remarked, "These pictures are beautiful! You must have a marvelous camera!"  To which the photographer replied,  "This soufflé is delicious. You must have really nice pots and pans."  Point?   It's the artist, not the brush. It's the knowledge and creativity, not the gear, which enables one to create a quality desktop movie. The movie "Celebration" proved that a cinematic masterpiece could be shot with a $1000 pocket camcorder.

Your goal is to put your viewers into an "entranced" state and keep them there- where they are "buying" your story- where your project becomes much more than moving pictures- it becomes real, and your viewers live your story, experience your story rather than just seeing it.  Like a reporter on the scene, your viewers' perception of the story will be completely determined by your shot selection, angles, framing and composition.  And how you choose to shoot these subjects will have a huge impact- a medium shot of a person laying on a couch might look comforting and cozy. But a wide shot of that person, laying on a couch in an otherwise bare room with empty walls might convey loneliness and isolation. Which framing you use will dramatically change the emotion conveyed by the shot- and the effect on your viewers.

Basic Shot Types:

Establishing shot:  An exterior shot of a building, or a very wide shot of a scene before going in close establishes the general environment of your scene before moving in closer. In sitcoms, it's a standard cliché to show the outside of the building for two seconds with a short musical segue way before moving inside.

Over-the-Shoulder Shot:  A two-shot in which the camera is shooting over the shoulder of one person is called, appropriately, an "over-the-shoulder" shot. A special kind of over-the-shoulder shot which barely shows the edge of another person's head and shoulders in the foreground is called a "dirty single".

Insert:  Shooting an insert means shooting a close-up of something visible in the scene to get a closer look.  A close-up of a wristwatch, a computer screen, keys unlocking the front door are all inserts if they are visible in the wider shot before the close-up.

Cutaway:  A cutaway is a shot of something outside the frame of the previous shot. A common example would be after a shot of your subject suddenly startled-opening their eyes wide in astonishment and looking out of frame- the next shot would be a cutaway to reveal what they're looking at. Cutaways are also used to "paint the picture" of that location and enhance your story. While on the set, always be aware of extra shots that you can cut away to while editing to help tell your story. A dog sleeping, a clock ticking, a teapot beginning to whistle, a picture on a shelf, a flock of birds flying by, the sun setting, storm clouds gathering, and so on.

Reverse Angle:  A reverse angle shot is simply shooting in the opposite direction. For example, a shot from inside a car shows a boy looking out the car window.  The reverse angle from outside shows the car with the boy's face looking out the window. A dialogue scene with two people is a whole series of reverse angles.

Reaction Shot:  A reaction shot is showing someone's facial expression in reaction to...  anything. The reaction shot is fundamental to cueing the viewer what emotion to feel from a scene- and is often as important or even more important than the action to which they're reacting. If you watch carefully, you'll see that the funniest moments in comedies and sitcoms are not when an actor says a line, but when you see the reaction on someone else's face when they hear it.

Point Of View (POV) shot:  A POV shot is a shot where the camera is seeing what your subject sees. In other words, the camera becomes the "head" of the subject. Cliché examples from cinema would be the view through binoculars, or someone hidden in an air vent peering out through the grate. POV shots are often used in shots where the subject is moving- a chase scene being one example.

Assignment for further learning:

Watch your favorite films and TV shows, and ask yourself:

Framing:  Where is the subject's eye line in relation to the frame?  What part of the body is at the edge of the frame? What combination of wide, medium, close-up and extreme close-up shots were used for the scene?

Angles:  Is the subject angled? Is the shot a high or low angle, dutch angle, or straight-on shot?

Coverage:  How many shots were captured for each part of a scene? Which inserts and cutaways contribute to and which distract from the story (if any)?

Moving camera:  In which shots is the camera moving and which is it not?  How did they move the camera? Pan? Tilt? Stabilizer? Crane? Dolly?

Composition:  How do the foreground, subject and background work together? How is the subject framed? Are they in the center or off to the side? Are they looking towards the open part of the frame? Where are the major lines in the frame?

Relationships:  How are the relationships between two subjects portrayed?  Is one subject higher, larger, brighter than the other? How does this help support the storyline?