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Three non-vague camerawork rules to make your shots more impressive

Apologies for the delayed post this week, guys - I’ve been working on what I hope will be the final draft of the animatic for Death Knight Love Story. Just some rough foley work to do now, but it’s been eating my brains all week.

Anyway. I asked in various places for suggestions on things you’d like to know about, and Armanus, on the Moviestorm forums, mentioned that he’d really like some camerawork advice.

Now, historically, I’ve always been very twitchy about my camerawork. I didn’t come at filmmaking from a visual arts background - I still can’t draw anything except stick figures (although those seem to go down pretty well, to be fair). I’m a writer. And my first attempts at camerawork, way back in 1997 with the first Eschaton episode, Darkening Twilight (which sadly doesn’t appear to exist on the Web any more), sucked more balls than a Roomba loose in a marble factory. (No, seriously. At one point the camera actually wanders off and inspects a bookshelf whilst the dialogue continues uninterrupted. )

As such, I’ve always been on the lookout for tips to improve my camerawork. And frankly, most of the ones I’ve found suck. They’re either far too specific and situational (“This camera dolly is awesome if you’ve got exactly 15 men and one dog in your scene”) or they’re very general and wishy-washy (“Make sure to think about colour theory”).

But over the years I’ve found a few things that are simple, possible to follow whilst you’re actually making stuff at some speed, and if you follow them will invariably make your camerawork better.

Remember What Your Job Is

It’s very easy to get caught up in thinking that your camerawork has to be beautiful, and sophisticated, and clever, and that if you’re not pulling memorable Ridley Scott or Peter Jackson moves every other minute you’re slacking off.

This is an excellent way to end up producing crappy, overblown camerawork. And as a man who’s committed his fair share of that in his time, I should know.

As a camera guy, and particularly as the director of your piece who is also doing his own camerawork, you have just two jobs. 1: Don’t be eye-bleedingly ugly. You’ll know if your shot’s super-ugly. If it doesn’t make you wince to look at it, and there’s no obvious bloopers or attention-breakers in shot (like, ahem, someone falling straight through a set of stone stairs), you’re good.

And 2: Make sure the audience can see WTF is going on.

That’s it.

It’s perfectly acceptable to make an entire film using nothing but a single wide shot showing the entire set and all the characters. Hitchcock did it, and he’s not the only one. If you’re shooting an entire scene with one standard close-up, one over-the-shoulder shot, and one wide shot of the entire thing, you’re doing exactly what most TV shows do - and I’m not talking crap TV here. Go re-watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Dawson’s Creek, two shows that I absolutely know use this setup repeatedly.

If the audience can see what’s happening, if they can see what the characters are doing and see well enough to see their expressions too, then your job here is done.

As a side-note, it’s very easy to get an inferiority complex about not using moving cameras. As a director, you’re going to feel a continual pressure to move the camera - if you just keep using still shots, you’ll probably start worrying that your camerawork looks boring.

Don’t worry about it. If you need to use a move, you’ll know. Experiment, sure, but there’s nothing wrong with just sticking to locked-off cameras for an entire film if you want to.

You’ll also probably find that from time to time you’re showing the action clearly, and you’ve tried lots of different approaches, but the shot just doesn’t “feel” right, and you’re sure it’s because you’re not good enough at camerawork to convey it.

It’s not.

I honestly can’t remember a single time I’ve felt this where it’s actually been the camerawork that’s at fault, Darkening Twilight excepted. It’s far more likely that the culprit is your actor or animated figure, or your lighting, or your edit, or your music, or your sound mix. If you haven’t edited the shot yet, just render/shoot the damn thing and worry about it in the edit.

Usually I find that the edit is where I alternate between saying “Ooh, that shot I thought blew goats is actually really useful” and saying “Jesus, what was I thinking, that funky helicopter shot looks like I tied the camera to a sparrow then shoved a firework up its arse”. I actually have a Post-It stuck to my monitor right now saying “You don’t know if a shot is great until it’s edited”.

The Rule Of Thirds

As far as bollock-simple rules that you can apply to 90% of your shots go, the Rule of Thirds is pretty much head of the list. And given that artists have been using it since 1797, and it’s closely related to the Golden Ratio (which as visual rules of thumb go, was old by the time the Parthenon was built), it bloody well should be.

Here’s the simple version.

See this pic from Death Knight Love Story? (I’m actually finding it a bit painful to look at, but that’s because the new renderer we just got is so much better. Anyway.)

Now, draw lines on it so that it’s divided into thirds both horizontally and vertically.

See how Miria’s face is more or less on the junction of those points?

That’s the rule. Any time you’re not certain about your placement in a shot, stick the important thing, which is usually a person, so that their eyeline or other important feature is at least on one of those lines, and better yet on one of the junctions.

You’ll notice that Miria’s not exactly at the junction of those lines. That’s OK. This is a rule of thumb, and I was eyeballing that shot without guide rules. You don’t need to be precise about this - just get the placement roughly right and it’ll make your shot stronger.

A few notes on this: it’s OK to do non-Rule of Thirds shots if you know why you’re doing them. A classic example would be a point-of-view shot where you’re positioning a character or object dead center on the screen - although even there you’ll probably want to have their eyeline or other key point on either the upper or lower Third line.

Also - if you have a strong flat line in the scene, stick it on one of the Third lines if you can. The classic use is to stick the horizon on either the lower or upper line - either way is a lot stronger than the classic amateur frame putting it in the middle of the shot. (You’ll see the horizon is slap on the lower line in the example image)

The thing I love about the Rule of Thirds is it’s totally mechanical, and it nearly always works. Frame shot, adjust to use RoThirds, and bingo, better shot.

Take A Moment

Finally, there’s another simple mental habit that’s really improved the quality of my shots: just before I render (or shoot if I’m doing live-action) I look at the shot and ask myself “If this was a painting, would I hang it on my wall?”

That sounds like a route to perfectionism, over-analysis, uncompleted films, and eventually alcoholism and getting eaten by a pet rabbit after dying of liver failure in a garrett. But used judiciously, it works.

First thing: only ask it ONCE. Stop, sit down, look for a moment, and if you’re not happy with the visual, try and fix it. And once you’ve tried to fix it, shoot the bloody shot and move on, even if you’ve not been able to find anything that works. Otherwise, you can easily end up spending a day on a single image, and still feel shit at the end because you’ve not gotten it to Da Vinci standards.

Secondly, remember to adjust ALL the elements of the image. The “painting” bit works because as a painter, you can change anything you like. As a filmmaker, it’s very easy to get stuck thinking all you can do is change the physical location of the camera - thinking about your shot as a painting gets you out of that trap. Change the lighting. Change the relation of objects in the frame. Move a pot plant. If I was to list the things that I do to fix a shot, the list would probably go: 1) Fix shonky lighting. 2) Move the damn actor to somewhere prettier. 3) (maybe) Change camera settings.

With those points in mind, it’s amazing what simply sitting back and taking a moment to “re-paint” your scene can do.

And that’s it! Please do let me know in the comments if you’ve found those tips useful, or alternatively if there’s another area you’d like me to cover more!

And, of course, if you’ve found those tips useful, subscribe to Guerilla Showrunner to get more showrunning tips - including more camerawork stuff, coming soon!