Shoot Like a Director. Don’t Forget the Editor. You May Be Both

By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2005

Originally published in Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine Camcorder & Computer Home Video Magazine Logo

If you use your camcorder to tell a story or if you shoot events, instructional videos or documentaries, your viewers will be more engaged if you plan your shot sequences. Whether you are editing in the camera as you shoot, or if you will be performing post-production editing on your computer, the smooth flow of shots will insure that you will please your audience and that their enthusiasm will encourage your video career.

Composing and sequencing shots is a craft that can be learned fairly easily. The more you practice these techniques the more adept will you be at video production. Movie directors, long before they start shooting, have mapped out their shots on a storyboard or a shooting outline. A storyboard is a series of drawings or still photos with captions that describe the action and the audio. A shot outline is a written description of the shots in the sequence you plan to edit them. Unless you have drawing skills, you can write a simple shot outline and use that as your shooting script.

Watch TV dramas, documentaries or movies with your director’s critical eye. Look for the different camera angles. Notice how a simple dialog looks like it was shot with three cameras. Usually, movies are shot with only a single camera. All the shots from one camera position are shot first, followed by the shots from the other positions. In the editing process, you put the shots together into the final sequence.

Getting Started

Let’s start by learning about the different kinds of shots you can take to give the final video a robust and smooth-flowing look. But before you can do any shooting at all, clean your lens. It is a good practice to do this prior to any day’s shooting. The simplest way is to use a lens cleaning cloth from an eyeglass shop or a camera store and gently wipe the lens to remove smudges and particles.

Now, with your clear lens and sharp eye, set up what’s called an establishing shot. This is an opening shot that is taken with the camcorder lens zoomed back to the wide-angle position. It shows the overall scene, whether it is an interior or an exterior shot. This is similar to a long shot (LS). Before you shoot, create a plan, either on paper or in your head to get long shots, medium shots (MS) and close-ups (CU), so that you give your viewers plenty of variety. A medium shot is usually a shot of a person that extends from below the waist to a little over the head. A close-up is usually a head and shoulders shot. An extreme close-up (ECU) is that super tight shot of only the mouth, nose and eyes; the kind of shot that 60 Minutes uses to catch a politician in a lie. Try not to overuse such dramatic shots; save them for the few times you can exploit them for maximum impact.

Try also not to use the zoom control with every shot. Use it judiciously to draw the viewer into a portion of the frame or to show the juxtaposition between different objects. If you start with a long shot, instead of zooming, stop the recording, reposition the camera and get your medium shot from a slightly different position. Moving about 45 degrees to either side can fool your viewers into thinking you shot the scene with more than one camera.

Avoid jumping from a long shot to a close-up, unless you want to startle your audience, as Hitchcock and Eisenstein did. Instead, use a medium shot to gradually transition your viewers into the dramatic close-up. Dividing the scene into a variety of short shots, without zooms, is what you will see professional directors do in movies. A sequence might go like this: long shot, medium shot, close-up, close-up from a different angle, medium shot, close-up, another close-up, medium shot, long shot. Notice that we were generous with close-ups. When you get in close, you create a sense of intimacy between the talent on the screen and the viewers in the audience.

Using Perspective to Create Impact

Now that we have gotten through some of the basics, it’s time to have fun, and to give your audience an exciting journey. Rather than always holding your camcorder at eye level, move it to waist level to capture a few shots from a slightly different perspective. Then get down on the ground, and shoot up to your subject. This creates a dramatic look when the camcorder lens is in the wide-angle mode. Lastly, get up on a sturdy table, ladder or rooftop and look down. You can create a vast establishing shot from this vantage point, and what better perspective for capturing a breathtaking sunrise.

Back to the camcorder at eye level; tilt the camcorder a little to the left or right to create a Dutch angle. Practice this slight tilt as you run the tape, to create a dynamic look. Automobile commercials and music videos use Dutch angles to create a dramatic feel. Don’t overdo this effect, unless you are producing a music video or a horror movie. Combine a Dutch angle with a low angle, and you are on your way to developing your repertoire of exciting shots to keep the viewers at the edges of their seats.

To give the viewers a sense of identification with the main subject, use a point-of-view (POV) shot. This simulates the view the actor sees as he moves about. You simply walk or move your camcorder as if you are the subject. A POV shot is best achieved with the camcorder in the wide-angle position.

Headroom, Nose-room and Backgrounds

When you videotape people, make sure that you properly compose your shots so that there is an appropriate amount of room above the person’s head: usually just a little space above the head before the top of the screen. This is called headroom. If you zoom in during a shot, you will need to tilt the camcorder down a little as you zoom to maintain appropriate headroom. Too much space above the head doesn’t look right; too little space and you risk cutting off the top of the head when your video is played on an older monitor that might crop the image a little.

When actors face left or right, it is a good idea to position your camcorder so there is a little more space in front of them, rather than simply center the subject in the camera. Similarly, when they walk to the right or the left, give them plenty of space to move into. The viewer feels more in control of what may go on in front of the actor. If you want to create suspense, do it the other way around. Hitchcock made a career out of breaking this rule.

Keep an eye on your backgrounds, too. A telephone pole in the distance can appear to grow out of your talent’s head. Autumn leaves hanging from a tree behind an actor with auburn hair can cause the two images to blend into one another. Plain backgrounds usually work best, and you may have to position your camcorder to the side or ask your actor to move a little so that the background doesn’t become a distraction. Avoid overly bright backgrounds such as a window. Backgrounds that are much brighter than your subject may divert your viewers’ attention from your main focus.

You can also use backgrounds as a frame around your subject. Position your actor and your camcorder so that a doorway surrounds him, or ask the teacher to stand in front of a blackboard or flipchart so the edges create a frame.

Continuity and Avoiding the Jump Cut

When you stop your camcorder and re-start it, you usually create what the industry calls a jump-cut. The camera is stationary, but the something in the scene has changed positions since you stopped and re-started the cam. You can cover a jump cut during the editing process by shooting a cut-in (CI) or cut-away (CA) shot.

A cut-in is usually a close-up shot designed to bring the view in closer to the subject. If you are making a video that includes a shot of a teacher writing on a blackboard, the cut-in shot would be a close-up of the teacher’s hand writing with the chalk. You would capture that cut-in after you completed shooting from the original camera angle. If you are using auxiliary lighting, be careful that the shadows fall in the same direction in both the main shot and in the cut-in shot. If you are shooting outside, don’t shoot your cut-in too late in the day; the sun’s movement could create a different shadow.

A cut-away shot is a reaction shot showing another actor or subject in the scene reacting to the main action. A reaction shot could be of a student taking notes or, if you shot an interview sequence, a shot of the interviewer nodding. You can shoot the cut-away shots after you shoot the main action. Write the approximate time code numbers on a log sheet so you can find them when you are capturing footage for editing. By the way, if you are asking questions during an interview, start the camcorder rolling and position yourself just to the left or right of the cam. You will achieve the look of documentary interviews, and you later can record cut-away shots of yourself looking and nodding.

Then, when it’s time to edit your video, you can cover your jump cuts by inserting the cut-in or cut-away shots. It is important to maintain the audio track of your original shot. You want to add only the video portion of the cut-in or cut-away when you perform your editing. Cut-ins and cut-aways aren’t just for covering jump cuts. Use cut-ins to draw emphasis to a subject, and use cut-aways whenever you want to show a reaction.

If your actors will be moving in a scene, it is a good idea to direct them to make clean entrances and exits. For example, if the actor will be walking in a shot, start the camcorder recording without him in the shot, and let the actor cleanly walk into it. After you got all your shots, and when the actor leaves the shot, record a few seconds of the scene after he leaves. These clean entrances and exits allow for smoother editing between them and the adjacent shots.

To maintain continuity of screen direction, make sure your actors are moving in the same direction from shot to shot. For example, if you are producing a sequence where the cops are running left to right after the robbers, the robbers should also be running left to right. Otherwise, you will confuse your audience. If you want them to change screen direction, show the robber turning around and the cops following his evasive action.

Dialog Sequence

Watch television dramas and movies to see how a basic dialog scene is shot. First you see both actors facing one another in what is called the master shot. Then the camera shows the first actor speaking. Frequently this shot includes a little of the back of the head and shoulder of the listener with what is called an over-the-shoulder (OTS) shot.

Next, the director gets an over-the-shoulder shot of the second actor, and he may alternate back and forth between both OTS shots. At some times during the dialog, the director cuts to the master shot, using it as an establishing shot to remind the viewer of the setting. Then we may see more OTS shots concluding with another master shot.

The dialog is shot three times: once with the master shot, and once with each of the two OTS shots. The actors need to repeat their lines precisely, and they need to remember their hand and body movements, so those are repeated during the dialog.

Certainly if you plan to edit in the camera, you won’t be repeating these shots. Rather, you will stop the camcorder, reposition and shoot the next shot. However for less than $100 you can get a complete computer editing solution–software and hardware. With the capacity for post production editing, you can record lots of extra shots and even shoot your video script out of sequence.

Either way, shoot plenty of extra footage: establishing shots, close-ups, extreme close-ups, over-the-shoulder shots, low angles and high angles. Capturing a variety of shots with your camcorder usually results in a robust, visually engaging video. A little planning goes a long way toward giving your audience a visually stimulating viewing experience.

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