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Friday, March 10, 2006

Cool film techniques

Bismillah ar-Rahmaan ar-Raheem,

The next time you're in the middle of a really great film at a theater, look around at your fellow audience members. They are not aware of you, or the exit signs, or even of the fact they are in a theater. They are so into the story, they are completely focused on the movie and have lost all awareness of anything but the story. They are truly on a desert island, out in space, or in Middle Earth.

Now look up at the screen. Obviously, with your budget and timeframe, you can't duplicate the sets and the Hollywood special effects are a bit beyond your reach.

But what CAN you achieve?

Can you shoot your subjects with the same framing? Can you shoot a slower, non-interlaced frame rate? Can you use the same camera moves, angles, coverage and creative composition? Can you shoot with nice lighting, shallow depth of field, reduce video artifacts and have good color balance and saturation?


And if you do only those things, your projects will be much closer to Hollywood standards, and your viewers will "smell the popcorn"- meaning when they view your project the same chemicals will be triggered in their brain as the movie theater, meaning they will focus on your project and it will be a winner.

Next time you watch a favorite feature film, watch as the hero enters his or her flat. The rays of sunlight streaming in through the windows form striking diagonals in the frame, infusing the scene with drama and (literal) atmosphere.

In a scene for our upcoming movie, Shareef walks into the house of the sister he met on the internet and finds it full of smoke (her farther started smoking because of him). As I wrote the script, I was imagining that the room would be filled with smoke. So how would you pull this one off? Burn a souflée? Invite a bunch of chain-smokers to stink of your location? (uh no). Better! Simply run a fog machine on the set before shooting to "put some particle in the air". Picking up a $50 fog machine at a party store will add a nice dramatic touch to your interior shots (but mainly if you have darker walls, direct sunlight coming in through the windows or a pro light kit with a hard light).

The farther away an object is, the more fog is between it and the camera lens, meaning that distant objects are more indistinct, leading to sort of a shallower depth of field-type effect.

The whole depth thing is something that I came across recently.

In many camera moves, panning, tilting, dutching and even zooming, the camera itself stays in the same place- atop your tripod.

This changes what you see in the frame. But it does not change the relationship between any objects in the frame. For example, if someone's head is hidden behind a foreground plant, no amount of tilting or panning will reveal that person.

The very important concept of ADDING DEPTH- adding the third dimension- to your shots is at the very heart of making your project real and captivating your viewers.

Television screens, computer screens and theater screens are FLAT. Your viewers don't have the benefit of stereoscopic vision to give them depth cues (like in reality)- to determine which objects are closer and further from them.

Building depth into your footage is essential for creating and maintaining the cinematic illusion, for drawing your viewers into your project and having them be entranced by your film.

Along with some other ways to add depth into your shots is to actually move your camera through space.

Only by moving the camera does the relationship between foreground and background objects change- which is a key to establishing depth to your shots. With foreground objects moving against the background, the viewer perceives your project in three dimensions instead of the flat surface it's being viewed on.

Using moving camera shots with care and tastefully, interspersed in a series of "locked-down" tripod shots will give your production a bigtime look and feel.

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* * * reasons to move the camera * * *

- To reveal something that was not in the frame before

- To follow a moving subject- from the side, front, back or top

- A move towards the subject builds and focuses intensity and interest in the subject

- A move away from the subject relaxes interest, "distances" viewer from subject

- A POV (point-of-view) shot with a moving subject necessitates a moving camera- like running down an alleyway

- To establish (and later re-establish) a location- after a series of MCU (medium closeup) or CU (closeup) shots, a WS (wide shot) with a moving camera can re-orient the viewer to the location of the scene and re-establish and reinforce the mood of the location

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* * * Moving camera shot vocabulary * * *

- move to the left - track left or crab left

- move to the right - track right or crab right

- move forward - dolly in or track in

- move backward - dolly out or track out

- move up - pedestal up or crane up

- move down - pedestal down or crane down

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Here are some options for moving your camera through space:


Take your camcorder off the tripod and you have a handheld shot. Move the camera carefully and move smoothly, like a jungle cat or ballerina, and you can get interesting, dynamic moving camera shots. Unfortunately, you can also end up with Blair Witch.

You can perform many camera moves, from dollies to trucks to crane shots handheld, but it is very difficult to duplicate the precision and steadiness that comes with using a mechanical device to move the camera. Interesting moving shots can be sometimes obtained by carrying a camcorder waist-high by the top handle.

A wide angle setting (zoomed out) is best when moving with a handheld camera, as longer focal lengths will magnify small hand movements too much. Image stabilization features will help with tiny hand tremors, but not with larger unsteady hand movements.

Of course, with a scene that is meant to have traumatic or violent motion, from chasing a bad guy- to experiencing an explosion, car accident or earthquake, handheld is the only way to go.

A special use of a handheld camera, in the hands of an expert, is to add life to a static shot with subtle but controlled random motion- resulting in a more lively energy, reality and immediacy than a locked down (tripod) shot.

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Camera stabilizers:

If you see a moving camera shot on TV or a film that looks impossibly fluid and smooth, like the camera is floating or gliding through the air, chances are the camera operator has a camera stabilizing device. These units dampen all the camera jiggles and bumps that occur when shooting while walking or running.

There are some inexpensive stabilizers that do an amazing job of smoothing out moving camera shots- you can run alongside a car or person walking, up and down stairs, through an alley or over rocky terrain and the resulting shot looks like the camera is flying smoothly through space.

You can also simulate dolly, track and crane moves with most camera stabilizers with much better results than handholding the camera.

Check out the poor man’s steadycam. http://cgi.ebay.com/Poor-Mans-Steadycam-Steadicam-inverting-bracket_W0QQitemZ7574786845QQcategoryZ23780QQssPageNameZWDVWQQrdZ1QQcmdZViewItem

You can find a bunch of different types on Ebay.

Dollys are very common in Hollywood but most of us can’t afford them. But you can get the same effect using a wheelchair. Just rent or borrow a wheelchair, sit down, hold the camcorder steady, and have a brother push you slowly and smoothly along a predetermined line or arc. On smooth surfaces, this should work just as well as a dolly, and can produce dolly and truck moves that look like a million bucks!
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