Film, like many other visual arts, is a two-dimensional medium that attempts to trick the viewer into perceiving a three-dimensional space. Decisions like where to put the camera, which lenses to use, and even the aperture used to increase or decrease the depth of field will all have a significant effect on how the viewers perceive a character’s behavior. The following are a few techniques you can use to enhance your camerawork. These can be especially helpful if you are one of the many photographers transitioning from still to motion.
Objective vs. subjective angles, and point of view.
Tilting our camera to one side or the other causes the objects in the shot to appear unbalanced or create an impression of chaos or fear. We see this technique (called “canted framing”) very often used in music videos and action movies. The same applies to blocking and framing. For example, moving a character away from the center of the frame could signify isolation, sadness, or that she is having a difficult time.
A subjective angle either places the camera where a character would be watching from, or it places the viewer inside the action. A low-angle shot from the runner below would be considered subjective, because it gives the viewer the sense of participating inside the scene rather than watching it from an external or more objective angle. Subjective shots are great resources to tell a story through the character’s emotions or perspective, but if used too often, they can be disorienting or alienating to the audience.
An objective angle is where the viewer has a perspective different from the character, or we see things that the character can’t. An example would be the image below, a low-angle view on the road of the runner approaching the camera.
Point of view (also known as POV) is an increasingly common technique to connect the viewer with the stos characters, and it falls right between the objective and subjective categories, as it represents the subjective perspective or vision from a character. The camera sees exactly what the character sees.
When we experience something from the character’s perspective we effectively become the character, and the story takes a much more personal and subjective meaning. The disadvantage of the POV angle is that we can’t see the character’s face, so we are forced to assume his or her emotional responses. Keep in mind that when composing a POV we should always consider the angle of view from which our character would see the action.
What’s wrong with handheld camera work?
Nothing, really. Camera movement is a very powerful aspect of filmmaking. When working with light camera bodies, pretty much all DSLRs and mirrorless systems, it’s extremely difficult to capture cinematic footage by simply holding the camera. Due to their light weight and only two points of contact (both hands or a hand and the face), every vibration of our body will completely jostle the frame. To limit this consider using a rig which will add weight and additional support.
Here’s another trick: consider using the widest lens available to visually conceal or diminish camera shake. An additional reason to choose wider lenses over longer lenses is the minimal focusing distance. Generally speaking, an effective shot is achieved by keeping a constant distance between the camera and the subject.
Other wonderful (but often more expensive) options are high-end stabilization systems, like a Glidecam, Steadicam, or any of the many 3-Axis Stabilized Handheld Gimbal Systems currently available like DJI’s Ronin or Freefly’s Movi. All these devices effectively eliminate any trace of camera shake and replace it with a floating sensation that has a very distinct look, almost as if the viewer is flying through the scene.
As always, the tools and approaches to use depend specifically on the story, budget, time, and type of reaction you want from the viewer. If properly integrated, a mix of coordinated camera shake and fluid movements can help inform and enhance our scenes.
To dolly or not to dolly, that is the question.
Nowadays dolly shots can be found in nearly every film. The concept is simple: a camera mounted to a mobile platform. We can achieve this with a dolly on tracks, a dolly on wheels, or the use of a slider. Dolly shots are also often referred to as tracking or trucking shots. In reality, setting up tracks, prepping a full size dolly, and mastering a fluid and repeatable movement is quite the task.
Setting all the hardware aspects aside, the principal reason of the dolly movement remains the same regardless of the size and type of gear: the goal is usually to achieve a strikingly different visual effect than panning or tilting a camera that’s mounted on a tripod. The dolly shot pulls the viewer into the frame, moving alongside a subject, or penetrating deeper into the scene.
There are three ways we can set up the lines of motion using a dolly move:
- Perpendicular to the action—This allows us to move the camera forward and backward.
- Parallel to the scene—Ideal for moving from side to side.
- In an arc around the action—This gives us the flexibility of traveling around the subject.
As I mentioned above, a dolly shot can be closely replicated with a slider, which is certainly much faster and easier to set up and control. If you don’t have a proper slider, you could “convert” a tripod into a dolly by lowering one of the tripod legs, and slowly moving the camera forward or backwards. This is especially powerful in combination with a wide angle lens. The catch is how to make the movement fluid and repeatable, but if we have more time than money this is not a bad option. The following video shows how we used a rolling table as a dolly.
Some of my all-time favorite directors—especially Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, and Orson Welles—were masters of the dolly shot. To see some terrific examples, check out this wonderful article on the “10 Best Tracking Shots” in cinema.
Do we always need dollies and tracks? Of course not. They are wonderful camera movement tools, but they are often heavy, expensive, and limited, and they require expertise and considerable time to set up. Try experimenting with other “moving platforms” like skateboards and wheelchairs or even build your own dolly out of PVC pipes and rollerblade wheels!
By learning more about these camera movement techniques and understanding how they affect and enhance our stories you can provide more value to your clients and projects.
Eduardo Angel is an independent Technology Consultant, Educator, and Visual Storyteller based in Brooklyn, NY. He currently teaches at The School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography, and mentors the photography program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
He is a co-founder of the idea production company The Digital Distillery, author of popular filmmaking courses on Lynda.com, and regularly shares his thoughts on technology, photography, and cinema on his website eduardoangel.com.