Let your movie-making serve the story, the reason that others come to your
Keep your camera on a tripod
Handheld camerawork draws attention to the movie, away from the story.
Directors use handheld to try to add realism, but it is based on a model
that is less real: television news. Handheld news footage feels more real
than other television news — because surely it must have been for
something great that the cameraman sacrificed professional technique
— but it is not more real than witnessing it first hand.
When you walk — even when you run — your vision does not jump
around that much. Your head is cushioned by your joints and your eyes move
against the motion of your body, like optical stabilization in camcorders.
Even when something terrifying happens, your vision does not swing around
or zoom in and out. That’s the work of a man trying to get a
mechanical device to focus on something unexpected. No one is as quick and
controlled with a camera as with his own eyes. When your eyes move from one
spot to another, it is like a cut.
Put the lens at the height of the actor’s eyes
Sympathy requires being on the same level as another. A camera higher or
lower than the actor is no longer emotionally neutral. If the camera is
low, we feel as if we are eavesdropping, that the actor is hiding
something, or that he is better than us. If the camera is high, we feel
like we’re about to ambush the actor or that we are better than him.
Use a telephoto lens
A normal lens is one whose perspective is the same as the eye. A shorter
lens is a wide angle. A longer lens is telephoto. Your eye never sees in
wide angle. Such an angle exaggerates depth, drawing attention to the
movie, away from the story.
When you focus your attention on something within your field of view, it is
like seeing it in telephoto. Since we always look at something within our
field of sight, instead of looking at everything at once, use a telephoto
lens most of the time and nothing shorter than a normal lens.
Your eye is of a fixed focal length. Again, when you focus on something
within your view, it is like a cut. There is nothing in our normal
experience like a zoom. The zoom lens was meant to be set before rolling
the camera and then left there. Zooming also brings out the
two-dimensional-ness of the shot.
Again, when you move your attention from one thing to another, it is like a
cut. You do not breeze across all the things between the first and the
Don’t use the dissolve or other transitions
We do not see in dissolves, wipes, or any other transition, not even in
dreams. The exception is when we wake up or fall asleep. It is like the
fade-in and fade-out.
It is best to fade in the beginning of your movie from black and end of
your movie to black. To cut from black — which all movies must start
from — startles.
But in between, only cut. Many movie-makers love the dissolve (fading
between shots). But usually two images mixed together are just mud. Even
coordinated dissolves, like where an actor’s face lingers inside the
moon, rarely carry the symbolic meaning that the director intends. They are
Use white light
In plays, lighting designers use tricks to bring out actors, since there is
no camera to focus attention. Often they shine orange light on the face and
blue light on the back. The contrast brings out the actor. Like other
tricks of the theater, like the spotlight, this is unrealistic.
In real life, your eyes try to turn whatever light there is to white. Light
bulbs are far more orange than sunlight, but at night their light looks
white. It’s only in the day that you see how orange they are. If you
set your camera’s white balance by hand yet shine light of another
tint, your scene will look other-worldly.
Use few shots
I used to think otherwise, because home movies also use long takes. But
those bore because nothing happens within most of the take. If your script
is right, you won’t have this problem.
A long take tranquilizes, hypnotizes. Some of the most popular movies
— The Sixth Sense, Saving Private Ryan — use the
long take. It lets the audience dig in and lets the drama build gracefully.
A good point to cut is when the action turns.
Give the actor runway
In college I shot a conversation at one camera angle but wanted to have a
close-up on the actor for her last line. So for that shot I moved the
camera up and had her say nothing but that last line. When the scene was
stitched together, it didn’t fit.
Many movies have scenes that begin in the middle of an argument or change
angles in the middle of a conversation. Nevertheless, let the actor act
through the whole arc, from rest to rest. I should have shot that whole
conversation over with the close-up, even if I was going to use only the
last part of it. If you want a scene to begin in the middle of an argument,
let the actors begin the argument and ramp up to the part that actually
begins the scene. Likewise, it’s easier on the actor to let him come
to rest again, even if you’re going to cut to a new scene before he
finishes whatever he is doing.
The better the actor, the less runway he needs. But a few moments of
ramping up and ramping down helps ensure solid performance.
Don’t have a static scene
Establishing shots, like of a courthouse at the corner of the street or a
jet landing on the runway, or interludes where a character just thinks, are
throwaway scenes. Every scene should have characters in it. And every scene
must move the story forward. Shots of anything other than two characters
interacting pass by transparently.