Let your movie-making serve the story, the reason that others come to your movie.

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.

Don’t zoom

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.

Don’t pan

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 next.

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 just weird.

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.