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Cutting Room Classroom:
Camera Tips

By Craig Tollis

Feb. 11, 2007 -- The edit suite is the filmmaker's last line of defense - your last chance to "fix it in post." Editors frequently have to hide, change, improve, repair, or avoid mistakes and oversights made during a shoot. It's a very educational experience, but you can't help wishing you could get those insights to the folks on the set while they were still working, not after the fact. In that spirit, I'd like to present some of the common problems editors run across, and what might help you avoid them. Let's begin with camera work, the fundamental ingredient in motion pictures. While there are no hard and fast rules for how a project should be shot, there are some basics that will generally help you get a result you'll like.

USE A TRIPOD

Most general camera work is done using a tripod, dolly, crane, or other kind of camera support system like a steadicam. Hand held camera is used only occasionally, usually for specific effect. The instability of the picture can add energy, confusion, and uncertainty to a scene, such as a chase or fight. It can indicate a shot is somebody's point of view, or just add an emotional edge that feels a little off balance. Using a tripod for general shots will give your footage a more professional look. It's particularly important for telephoto close ups, which will otherwise tend to be very unstable. It also helps to maintain a level horizon in wide shots, which can otherwise be disorienting. A more stable shot allows the audience to concentrate more on the action. Tripod use also helps you think about camera moves and shot composition. The tendency with hand held shooting is to hunt around to follow action. Sometimes this is a desirable effect, but it can also lead to poorly thought out shot composition. Of course, there are situations where a tripod is impractical, or where you want that instability in the scene. It's a decision you should make based on how you want your footage to look and feel.

AVOID AUTOMATIC SETTINGS

Most cameras now include automatic settings for functions such as focus, iris, and white balance. These are sometimes useful, particularly if you're shooting in an unpredictable environment. Typically, however, they are designed for "general" shooting situations, not creative ones like independent film. For example, auto white balance controls tend to assume you are shooting in a color neutral environment under common lighting conditions. They'll balance against any dominant color in your scene, which can make the picture look washed out. Plus, you almost never want your white balance to change during a scene. If an actor turns on a light during the action, for example, you don't want the overall color of the scene to shift. Even if you have a bad white balance setting during shooting, it is easier to try to correct in post if the entire scene has the same problem, rather than if it changes constantly.

Similar problems occur with the auto iris setting. Auto iris might be useful if you were moving camera between two differently lit locations during a shot, but in general you don't want to see an iris change in your scene. This is particularly true if a brightly lit object (like an actor) enters or exits a scene. You generally don't want your overall light level to change when elements in the scene change.

Auto focus problems are more obvious. Auto focus systems "hunt" for focus. If the camera loses focus, it will tend to throw it way out and then hunt back. This is even assuming it chooses to focus on the object you want, which it might not if you have composed your picture in a creative way. A convenient solution is often to use the automatic system to get an initial setting, and then switch to manual keeping that setting. Focus and iris controls sometimes have a "push auto" feature that will take a reading at the moment you push that button and keep it. White balance systems usually have a set button, which you press while framing up an object in the scene that you want to appear white. Of course, you can always go manual and use your creative judgment. Taking a setting beforehand and sticking with it almost always looks better, or is easier to "fix in post," than using an automatic setting that changes unpredictably during your scene.

SHOT VARIETY

There's a temptation to shoot every scene in a similar fashion. Frequently in the edit suite I'm given raw footage that is predominantly wide or medium shots using a mid-range focal length. Too much similarity within a scene, and from scene to scene, is awkward to cut together and becomes boring and predictable for the audience. Unless you are going for a particular effect, look for ways to add shot variety to a scene, and between scenes. This might mean choosing when to use close ups and when to stay with medium or wide shots. It can also mean changing the height of the camera, choosing whether to use camera moves or lock-down shots, and varying focal lengths. For example, a 2-shot using a wide-angle lens (or zoom setting) with the camera close to the actors looks very different from a 2-shot using a telephoto lens with the camera far away. The choices you make give your production a different look and feel, so not all options may appeal to you. However, variety always adds interest and gives you options in the edit. Steven Soderbergh's recent film, Bubble, is an interesting example of minimalist camera work that still maintains good shot variety.

If you are shooting a complex project, doing a storyboard may help you think about the types of shots to use in a scene, and how to give different scenes and different locations their own look and feel. Using a monitor may also help, rather than looking through the camera viewfinder. When using the viewfinder, your eye may selectively pick out certain areas of the picture, which is misleading. A monitor tends to force you to see the entire image, which is how the audience will view it.

USE PRE-ROLL AND POST-ROLL

Finally, a small technical point: It really helps to shoot a few seconds of pad on the front and back of each of your shots. This makes sure the edit system will get a clean start and end when it is capturing. It can be particularly important with professional tape formats where the edit system needs time to establish sync. While not so critical on DV formats, it can still help you work around technical issues and is worth the couple of seconds of tape, just to be sure. This is particularly important at the head of a tape, where the first seconds of playback may be unreliable. Pre-roll and post-roll also help with transitions in the edit process - particularly dissolves.

For example, if you want to take a slow dissolve from one scene the next, you'll need several seconds of footage at the end of the outgoing shot, after the last dialog is complete, and probably several seconds of footage at the beginning of the incoming shot, before any dialog. If you stopped tape the moment the actor finished a line, you won't be able to make this transition. You'd have to use a shorter dissolve, maybe a dip-to-black, or a hard cut. It generally pays to keep rolling a few seconds even after dialog has finished the director calls cut - for both safety and flexibility.

NOTE: Craig Tollis is an Atlanta-based editor and Filmmaker with ten years of experience. Please send any questions or comments to craig@screenreport.com. Craig will gladly respond.

 

 

 

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