Camera techniques are one of the most fundamental parts of cinematic narratives. Before you start writing about the films you are studying for VCE Media, you will need to have a handle on the terminology of basic camera techniques. In the VCE Media exam, students put themselves at a disadvantage if they attempt to describe scenes from the narratives they have studied using inaccurate terminology. In films, the way the camera is moved, makes a big contribution to the story. Filmmakers put considerable thought into how camera movement contributes to the narrative.
Shot size refers to how far away the camera is from a subject. There are six basic shot sizes:
Extreme long shot. Establishing shots are often used at the beginning of scenes to establish the setting. At the beginning of a film, for example, you might see an extreme long shot of a city or rolling hills. Then, we cut to a closer shot of a street, building and finally the character inside.
Long shot. A long shot usually still shows a great deal of background, characters are visible but may not be close enough to be recognisable.
Full shot. A full shot shows characters from head to toe.
Mid shot. A midshot shows the characters from the waist up.
Close up. The close up is one of the most commonly used shot sizes in film and television, usually showing a character’s face.
Extreme close up. Extreme close ups are usually an attempt to draw the viewer’s attention to a particular detail. For example, the director may choose to cur from a mid shot of a character to an extreme close-up emphasizing something about that character’s appearance.
Camera angle refers to the angle at which the subject is shot. Camera angle can have a particular effect on the audience.
• Overshot. The camera is positioned directly above the subject. This is often used in establishing shots, where the camera flies over city streets. Alfred Hitchcock used an overshot in Psycho when Norman Bates carries his mother out of her bedroom and down the stairs.
• High Angle. The camera is positioned above the subject, looking down at an angle. This angle makes the subject appear smaller, powerless and more vulnerable.
• Eye Level. This is the most commonly used camera angle in film and television. Whereas most other camera angles are highly stylised, an eye level shot creates a sense of normalcy and realism because this is how we see the world. In Jaws, Steven Spielberg used eye level shots to engage audiences, choosing to shoot characters in the water from eye level rather than from above. Cinematographer Bill Butler developed a box which allowed the water to lap up against the camera, effectively putting the audience in the water with the actors.
• Low Angle. The camera is positioned below eye level, looking up, to imply a sense of power and dominance.
• Undershot. The camera is positioned directly beneath the subject, looking up. Often coupled with point-of-view shots when the character is looking up at something.
Camera movement, too, makes a significant contribution to storytelling. Here is a list of different types of camera movement that you might encounter in narratives:
• Dolly. A dolly is any sort of moving platform that a camera is mounted on. Professional camera crews often lay down tracks which the camera can be moved along. Sometimes, the camera is mounted in the back of a car. Skateboards, office chairs and supermarket trolleys are the dollies of choice for low budget camera crews. Dollies are often used in very subtle ways. Throughout the course of a conversation, for example, you may notice that the camera very subtly moves closer to the characters. In M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, for example, there is a scene where two characters – portrayed by Bruce Willis and Robin Wright Penn – are sharing dinner at a restaurant. The camera gradually dollies in on the couple to suggest a rekindled sense of intimacy.
• Tracking Shot. The camera follows a moving subject.
• Pan. The camera turns horizontally when mounted on a tripod.
• Tilt. The camera tilts up/down when mounted on a tripod.
• Crane. The camera is mounted on a crane, helping filmmakers to achieve dynamic overhead shots.
• Handheld. Handheld camera movement is often used to achieve a sense of realism. Films like The Blair Witch Project, The Bourne Supremacy and Syriana. Handheld camera movement achieves a sense of realism partly because audiences associate this sort of camera movement with documentary film.
• Steadicam. A device that allows camera operators to achieve smooth, fluid camera movement.
• Zoom. The lens of a camera is used to magnify an image.
When composing a shot, filmmakers also consider what will be in focus. Depth of field is a term which describes how far the camera can see into the distance. Narrow depth of field is when only part of the image is in focus and much of the background or foreground is out of focus. Deep focus is when everything, even distant objects, is perfectly in focus. Orson Welle’s film Citizen Kane was one of the early films to use this technique. A pull focus is when filmmakers shift the focus from one object to another.
WRITING ABOUT CAMERA TECHNIQUES
Whether you are writing about character development or the point-of-view from which the narrative is presented, at some point you will need to make reference to camera techniques. Previous VCE Media exam papers have also asked students to comment on the use of camera techniques in narratives. When you are writing about camera techniques, ensure you use terminology appropriately and explain clearly how the camera is being used.
Here is an example of something a student might write about camera movement in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight: “During the conversation between Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008), Dent asserts that the people of Gotham appointed Batman when they let ‘scum take control’ of the city. Nolan cuts to a midshot of Wayne. As he cuts back and forth between the two characters, the camera slowly dollies in on Bruce Wayne. The heroic theme the audience has come to associate with Harvey Dent plays softly in the background. Wayne smiles slightly as he listens to Dent talk. This combination of camera movement, acting and editing subtly conveys to the audience that Bruce Wayne immediately likes the District Attorney. This is reinforced towards the end of the conversation when Bruce Wayne says, ‘Well, I’m sold, Dent, and I’m gonna throw you a fundraiser…One fundraiser with my pals, you’ll never need another cent.’”
Another example from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: “As Marion moves towards the partially open closet, the camera dollies in towards the bed, showing an extreme close-up of the $40,000 stuffed in an envelope on the bed. Bernard Hermann’s suspenseful score increases in intensity as the camera slowly pans to the left, showing a close-up of a an open suitcase draped with clothes. This simple camera movement and use of music conveys Marion’s decision to steal the money. The camera cuts to Marion as she takes a shirt from the closet, turns back towards the bed and puts it on. As she does up the top button, her face is lined with concern and she looks intently towards the bed. There is a close up of the suitcase and a point-of-view shot of the envelop as she looks over her shoulder while standing in front of the mirror. Although she is clearly going to steal the money, the combination of point-of-view shots, editing and acting conveys her indecision.”
In M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, a combination of camera movement and acting are used to convey that the main character, David Dunn, is unhappy with his marriage: “Towards the beginning of M Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, David Dunn rests his head against the window of a train, rubbing his eyes. Off screen, we hear a woman’s voice: “Are you alone?” David nods. The camera pans left to reveal a beautiful woman. As she stows her bags in the overhead compartment, the camera lingers on her toned, tattooed stomach before panning back to David, it lingers on his expression for a moment, before tilting down to show him surreptitiously removing his wedding ring. This combination of camera movement and acting contributes to the character development of David Dunn, insinuating that he is unhappy with his marriage.”