The Camcorder Auteur

By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2006

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

With camcorders getting better all the time, there is no reason you can’t shoot a movie with your camcorder. It may not be quickly optioned by Hollywood, but you can enter your digital film in the Sundance Film Festival or in one of dozens of other worldwide film festivals that highlight the works of independent filmmakers.

Here we look at some techniques used by movie directors throughout the years and apply them to camcorder shooting. We will discuss production planning, artistically composing your shot, working with actors and adding variety and intrigue to your video.

A digital camcorder, lights, mikes and a computer editing system is about all you need to be a digital filmmaker. Add a generous dose of your creativity and apply some of the cinematography techniques covered here, and you will be able to produce a film as good as Hollywood—maybe better. Whether it is a feature-length film or a short subject, the techniques described here will help you to tell a story with shot sequences and to convey emotions with images.

The Auteur

It all starts with you—the writer, director, shooter, editor—you do it all. While Hollywood movies usually are a collaboration of several different creative voices, there is a school of thought that says a film is a reflection of the creative vision a single person—the auteur. The auteur theory was advocated by French New Wave artists in the early 1950s and particularly by filmmaker François Truffaut. The auteur or “author” of a film—that’s you—applies his or her personal vision, and the film can be seen as a reflection of the author’s personality.

Part of this theory is the notion of caméra-stylo or “camera-pen.” This theory states that the camera is like a writer’s pen and that the filmmaker has a unique view that should not be limited by convention.

The French filmmakers have named other techniques that give filmmaking more of an artistic look. The montage consists of several short shots put together, usually with music, to create a mood or feel. The shots may relate to one another to tell a story with only visuals.

Mise-en-scene is a French term that refers to the arrangement of elements in a single shot. The relationship of people and objects in the shot tells a story in itself. Framing and composition are particularly important with this technique.

You don’t have to be French to apply these techniques, and you don’t have to work in Hollywood to produce a professional looking digital film. Let’s start with some basic techniques of professional cinematography and see how we can apply them to camcorder usage.

Framing the Shot

You may be tempted to place your subject in the very center of your camcorder viewfinder, but try some creative composition techniques with a few of your shots, especially your opening and closing scenes.

Artists and photographers use the rule of thirds to compose their scenes. Mentally divide the image into thirds, both vertically and horizontally. Pretend you are drawing a tic-tac-toe pattern over your frame. Rather than having the horizon in the middle of the frame, move your camcorder so it is one-third from the bottom or from the top. That creates a dramatic look and feel. If you want to place your subject off-center, you can place him at one of the vertical lines, and balance the composition with a secondary object placed at the opposite vertical line.

When your subject moves to the left or right, make sure you have plenty of “nose room” or space in front of the subject, so the viewer sees where he is moving to. Placing the subject in at one of the vertical third lines, helps determine the placement. If you want to create suspense, position your subject at the opposite vertical line so the viewers can’t see much of what he is walking into.

“Head room” is another consideration, whether yours is a static or moving shot. Maintain about the same space above your subject’s head at all times. When you zoom back, you will need to tilt down a little to avoid too much head room above the subject. Similarly, when you zoom in, tilt up a little to avoid cutting off the top of his head.

Sizing Your Shot—Long Shots, Medium Shots, Close Ups

Watch movies and television, and you will frequently see that the director establishes the scene by starting with a long shot to give the viewer an overview of what he will be seeing. This helps the viewer feel in control of the experience, and directors frequently use long shots, called establishing shots, establish the setting in the minds of the viewers.

Unless you want to startle your audience, it’s best to follow a long shot (LS) with a medium shot (MS) before going for the most expressive of shots—the close-up (CU). Since videotapes and DVDs are viewed on relatively small screens, compared with feature films, videographers generally rely on plenty of close-ups to show detail and to create a sense of intimacy with the viewers. Long shots include all of a person’s body—head to toe. Close-ups are usually head and shoulders. Medium shots are anything in between. These are meant to be just guidelines; the framing will vary, especially if there are several people in your shot.

A common shot sequence will go something like this: long shot, medium shot, close-up, close-up, medium shot, close-up, close-up, medium shot, long shot (re-establishing shot), medium shot, close up, close up, medium shot, long shot. You can see that this sequence emphasizes close-ups and uses medium shots to bridge the gap between long shots and close-ups. Try to avoid too many medium shots; those are the sure sign of someone who hasn’t given much thought to creating shot variety. Certainly, this is just one example of a shot sequence; use your creativity and mix up your shots.

When you want to establish the deepest intimacy between the viewer and the subject on the screen, use the extreme close-up (ECU). This is where you can stimulate tension in your viewer and where you can show the greatest detail. When 60 Minutes catches a politician in a lie, the camera operator goes for the extreme close-up of the subject’s eyes, so the viewer can look for any signs of dishonesty.

High and Low Angles

Just as constant use of the medium shot can cause you to lose the viewer’s attention, keeping the camcorder at eye level can contribute to monotony. Clever camera operators will position the camera down close to the floor for a dramatic shot and then will move up a ladder for wide view. You have a distinct advantage over the operators of bulky movie cameras; video camcorders are not only light weight, they come with tilting LCDs. This feature offers increased options for creative camera angles.

Hold the camcorder above your head, and angle the LCD so you can see it. Similarly, get a very low angle with the LCD tilted up. Put the camcorder right on the floor, and use your hand or a stack of business cards to elevate the lens side to properly frame the shot. Get on the roof across the street, or shoot from a top floor to get a bird’s eye view.

When your subject is looking at the camcorder and you position it high above him, you can create a sense of him appearing meek and small. Conversely, when you place the camcorder below the subject, you can give him an air of height and majesty. When you are taking a straight-on shot, where you want to maintain a sense of equality between the subject and the camera, position the camera at about the subject’s eye level.

When you tilt the camcorder in relation to the subject, it’s called a Dutch angle. This sometimes adds to the drama of a scene. You can combine a Dutch angle and a low angle, and maybe even attach a wide-angle adapter to your camcorder to develop an even more compelling look.

Wide-angle adapters attach to the front of the camcorder lens to increase the area of view. Place an object in the foreground, and the wide-angle lens magnifies it, sometimes creating a 3D illusion. If you experiment with the placement of foreground objects when using a wide-angle lens you can develop a compelling composition that will tell a story with only the visuals. Be careful when shooting a close-up with a wide-angle lens; it tends to magnify your actor’s nose.

Sequences and Continuity

Just as the director may plan for the sequence of long shot, medium shot and close-up, he also tells his story by staging the scene and moving characters within the scene. A chase scene, for example would be developed by each character running in the same direction, one following the other. If the first character runs screen left to screen right, the one who is chasing him needs also to run right to left, to maintain that continuity. If you want to change screen direction, plan to have a character actually turn a corner or reverse his action on camera. You need to maintain this continuity of screen direction to avoid confusing the viewer.

Clean entrances and clean exits are techniques directors use to avoid a jump cut, or a sudden change on the screen. For example, if your actor is to be seen in one room and then in the next room, it may jar the audience and cause distraction if the actor suddenly pops into the second room. The director will arrange for the actor to walk out of the camera frame in the first shot and then walk into the camera frame in the next shot—clean exit and clean entrance. Look for this technique in movies and television; it is a very common practice.

A dialog sequence is frequently shot with a single camera; the director repeats the action from different angles. First, the two subjects are shown facing one another in a master shot. Then, the actors repeat their dialog as the camera takes an over-the-shoulder (OTS) shot of one character. The shot usually includes the back of the shoulder of the person he is speaking to. Lastly, the entire scene is repeated from an over-the-shoulder shot showing the other subject. In the editing room, the three different shots are mixed up. We see the master shot, then both over-the-shoulder shots and then the master shot again. This is a common sequence in television and movies.

Cut-ins (CIs) and cutaways (CAs) are other techniques cinematographers use to create variety within their scenes and better tell their stories. Cut-ins are generally close-ups that show what the actor is looking at or what they are talking about. Cutaways are frequently reaction shots of someone in the scene viewing the action. A shot of people in the audience watching a stage play or someone listening to a couple’s conversation are examples of cutaway shots. Cut-ins and cutaways create a robust scene by varying camera angles and points of view.

Even with camcorders’ built-in image stabilization, if you walk with the camcorder, your shots are probably not going to be as smooth as you want. Consider using a camera-steadying system like a Steadicam or a Glidecam. It takes practice to create the fluid movements you see in movies and TV, but your viewers probably will not tolerate shaky shots.

If you get a dolly for your tripod, keep in mind that the larger the wheels, the smoother the shots. Dolly shots can be used to move the camera side to side and allow the viewer to distinguish the background from the foreground. Simply panning your camcorder, rather than using the dolly, results in a less dynamic and a flatter looking shot. Similarly, using the dolly to move closer to your subject creates a livelier look than merely zooming.
Working with Actors

Steven Soderberg’s new film Bubble employs real people acting as themselves. This may seem easy to pull off, but it’s not. Soderberg has been directing films for many years and knows how to draw a particular performance out of his actors. Professional actors study their craft for years, so don’t expect your friends to immediately deliver the performances you desire.

It’s best to try to get your actors to feel as their characters do. Rather than tell the actors how you want them to read their lines, encourage them to find their own voices — their own natural way of reacting to the situation in the scene. This may take time, so plan for plenty of rehearsal time.

Sometimes, even before rehearsal, the director schedules a table reading where the actors read from their scripts without having to actually be on the shooting set. This helps actors to know their cues and get the correct timing when reacting to the other actors. When on the set, the director will perform blocking, or rehearsing the movements of actors. This helps the camera operator to anticipate the action and gives the director an idea of how the scene will look within the video frame.

While the beginning director should encourage his actors to express themselves in a natural way, he or she has the final say about how the scene will be performed. The director is not a democratically elected president; he is more like a dictator. He calls the shots and makes the decisions. Hopefully he could be regarded as a benevolent dictator.

With a well-written script, a talented cast and a knowledgeable crew, you can use your camcorder to make digital movies. Add your creative vision, and your digital camcorder blurs the line between Hollywood movies and digital filmmakers.
Once you start using high-definition equipment, your images will be very close in resolution to the 35mm motion picture film that Hollywood directors use. With HD you can project your digital movies on a giant screen. Whether you use standard definition or high-definition camcorders, your digital movies will look as good as the real thing. In fact, they are.

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