The Camera Is An Eye - Not A Vacuum Or A Gun
COW Library : Cinematography : David Allison : The Camera Is An Eye - Not A Vacuum Or A Gun
One bright day in the spring of my career, I had the good fortune to learn the most important lesson any cinematographer (videographer, cameraman, shooter) can learn. As with any nugget of bona fide genius, it took a long time for the lesson to sink in, take root, and grow into true understanding. This is ironic; since the correlating tendency of such 'nuggets' is that they are exceedingly simple.
I was in a Director's Class with the approachable and jocular, Michael Pressman, when he suddenly threw his arms wide and asked, "If you had one shot to capture this class, what would it be? Where would you place the camera?"
Got that? -- You are assigned to record the scene of a teacher speaking to a classroom full of students and you are given ONE SHOT to tell that story. What would your answer be? As for me and my classmates, we could only toss out a few, uninspired offerings: "up high near the door?" / "outside, through the window?" / "straight down from the ceiling?" (The question marks reflect the abject uncertainty with which these suggestions were delivered.)
Before I proceed to "the answer" -- I'll share a couple of notes: in the hushed muttering that followed, Pressman confided to us that it was the Master Director, himself -- Orson Welles -- who had taught him this way of sizing up a shot.
He also anticipated the objection of all us would-be-geniuses who were capable of fresher, bolder and more cutting-edge ideas than any approach the old, washed-up, Paul Masson-tippling salesman could provide: "Of course there is more than one 'RIGHT ANSWER' to the question I've posed, but before you go off declaring yourself smarter than the greatest director of the 20th century, you might want to know just what HIS answer would be, and WHY." This was enough to silence the residual chirping.
"Okay," I bit, "so what's 'the answer'?" Following a final, dramatic pause, Pressman simply lifted his hand behind his head and said, "Up and behind me, with all of you filling out the scene in the background." As a coda to these words, Pressman made a 'V' with his arms -- a 'V' that projected out from the "point" of his position in front of the room. Hmm...
In this example, the shot compels us to get 'inside' the speaker's head.
The boardroom occupants are alien and distant -- as if on the other side of an unseen barrier.
From Citizen Kane:
Here, the showgirls form a kind of receding 'railroad track'
as the men in the foreground are only too eager to get 'run over' by sex...
Before I do, however, I'd like to address a dimension of the question you may find bothersome. Since you, the shooter, are never limited to one-and-only-one shot to tell a story, you might well ask, "why should one care about such an unrealistic and narrow-minded restriction?"
The answer is this: this fundamental philosophy will advance your thinking, your strategy, your creative-eye, your capability, your total vision, and your confidence. It will also shave inches of belly-fat from your waist! (Interested, yet?)
For starters, Welles's challenge is decidedly geometrical in nature. The 'V' that Pressman formed with his arms was telling; the camera is a single point of emanation, and one should always think of it as being the apex of an endless cone. There are many students in the class, but there is only one teacher, so it is best to "cast the shot" outward from the teacher (narrower/smaller) to the students (wider/bigger).
The ONE SHOT that would present the greatest information, offer the deepest perspective, and convey the most dynamic image is -- as Pressman described -- up and behind the teacher's head, looking down over the collection of students that sit before him.
To reiterate: this does not mean that all other shots would be "incorrect" or "invalid". But given the confines of the question -- the Wellesian solution is best. If, on the other hand, the question broadens, and we learn that our film is about a student with a titanium hand, the shot favored by Mr. Pressman (as proxy for Mr. Welles) would be a poor choice. But what is being explored by this query is not a law carved in stone, but a mindset guided by principle.
From Citizen Kane: The lighting is spectacular, but it is the camera placement that tells the story:
we feel tension in the eyes of the primary waiter (MG), concern in the attitude of the secondary waiter (FG), utter despair in the woman (MG), and artificiality in the distant mural (BG).
Welles once famously said, "a film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet," and now, I would argue, we know why. What is an eye, after all, but a point of perspective peering out at the poetry of the world?
At any given moment during the shooting process, you, the shooter, have an infinite number of options regarding camera placement. But what informs your decision? Do you have a strategy that you follow? Do you ever stop to ask yourself basic questions (Where should my 'eye' be placed to most successfully gather the breadth, depth, and meaning of the scene I am shooting?) -- or do you just wing it?
What I'm positing here is that the Welles's approach is a tremendously powerful way to inform your work. Veer away from it, if you feel you must, but at least understand it.
From Citizen Kane:
This is a classic case of the shot's "message" dictating camera position. Kane's wife has taken a lethal combination of medicine and alcohol, so the camera is placed behind the small items in the foreground, with the "wider action" in the distance. What is further interesting about this shot is that it achieves the impossible: a foreground and a background in sharper focus than the middleground! Since this can't be done optically, it's likely certain elements were keyed in separately. This speaks volumes about the lengths to which Welles was willing to go for his 'poetry'.
One might conclude from much of the above that Welles's philosophy is merely the glorified approach of a still photographer. Though this is not far from the truth (a good many shooters would undoubtedly improve their skill if they paused to learn the art of photography), there are important distinctions.
First, virtually all film or video production relies on a series of shots to tell the story, so this Wellesian knowledge will inevitably infuse the inherent variety of a production, not merely a singular moment or aspect.
Second, there is the potential for motion in each and every shot done for the motion picture arts, so -- unlike with still photography -- the "fourth dimension" of time is necessarily added to the equation. In Wellesian jargon, a well-planned moving shot would be comprised of a seamless multitude of ideal positions occurring through time.
Since everybody likes examples, let's turn to our old friends: the dazzlingly talented Shooter-X, and her lazy, blubber-minded counterpart, Shooter-K.
The assignment? -- A pool-hall scene for a short, dramatized video: "How 9-Ball Helped Bring Down Uncle Morty's Blood Pressure."
Well, wouldn't you know it -- lazy ol' Shooter-K arrives a tad late, and immediately starts to sweat. Having spent no time mentally preparing for the day's shoot, he quickly tries to play 'catch up'... What he soon gleans is that the director merely wants to capture the easy-going flow of a simple pool game. "Phew," thinks Shooter-K to himself, "that sounds pretty straight-forward."
But that's not all Shooter-K thinks: as a videographer who spends gobs of time stretched out on his couch waiting for the phone to ring, Shooter-K mainlines more than his share of the FX channel, where Vegas 9-Ball is an afternoon fave. "This is right in my wheelhouse!" he exclaims, internally (a dark and dimly-lit place). Leaping onto a sturdy desk adjacent to the pool table in question, he jacks his tripod up to its tallest position. With the camera soon on the sticks, Shooter-K begins blasting the heck out of the scene! Eminently pleased with himself, he even wonders if his work is better than what he's viewed on TV.
Ah, but what might be appropriate coverage for a televised 'sporting' event is dreadful when it comes to the subtle art of cinematography -- for each and every shot that Shooter-K completes is a dull, perfunctory profile of the pool-hall scene. What a waste of everyone's time...
[Confucius Note #1: He who treats movie camera as gun, always ends up with lifeless material.]
Meanwhile, in a parallel-universe (a far happier place, where beer is free and all the candy shops are owned by dogs):
Shooter-X arrives at the pool-hall early, with a confident glint in her eye. Having spent the previous evening reviewing the director's notes, she knows every cheek and jowl of the Uncle-Morty-story. But even if she hadn't familiarized herself with the subject matter, never in a million years would she position herself at a perpendicular angle to her subject, and begin "firing away" with her camera like that empty-headed-loafer, Shooter-K. No, no, no, she's far too sensitive for that type of nonsense!
Shooter-X knows the drama is in the spatial relationship between the balls on the table and Uncle Morty. Just as the latter leans over his pool cue, Shooter-X brings her camera down onto the green felt and frames a magnificent shot that presents the cue ball looming large in the foreground, the confident face of Uncle Morty in the middleground, and the soft, 'starry sky' of ceiling lights in the background. The director looks at his camera-feed and starts to seriously dig what he sees! The sure-handedness he senses in Shooter-X is definitely something he can build on... He starts directing Uncle Morty to accommodate the camera, and to "work with it".
In no time, the shooter, the director, and the subject are all working together like a three-legged-stool built by the Amish. Naturally, 6 months later, "How 9-Ball Helped Bring Down Uncle Morty's Blood Pressure" wins 23 Regional Emmys.
By getting down on the table, Shooter-X communicates the 'humanity' that underlies
the physical challenge... and the kinetic dynamism of the smooth, resin balls.
Never underestimate the power of simple ceiling light to give a composition added dimension.
From Citizen Kane: The snow globe, which is reminiscent of Kane's childhood home, is one of only two things that can stir genuine emotion in him (the other being Rosebud, his sled). Here, in the wake of a tyrannical meltdown, his hand practically quivers with the unrealizable hope of being young and carefree again. Note how the shot gives us just the right amount of information.
From Citizen Kane: What more can be said about one of the most praised and scrutinized shots in filmmaking history? How about that this is Kane's Richard II moment.... Despite his seeming shallowness and callowness, Kane is a real person who suffers the way you and I suffer. This angle evokes the profound sense of his isolation and loneliness, yes, but it also speaks of a "hidden-Kane"... the distant, subconscious, younger (more diminutive?) Kane that "might have been" had he not -- as a young boy -- been ripped away from his mother and his happy life. That boy "exists" no more and no less than these reflections "exist".
Let's consider yet another example: After a hurricane shut things down in Anyburb, the town is slowly coming back to life. Among other things, the local news bureau has asked for some feel-good-b-roll of kids returning to Anyburb Elementary.
This time around, lazy ol' Shooter-K actually manages to show up early, but instead of spending the extra time in contemplation, he "instinctively" places himself over to one side of the pending action. When the buses arrive, he repeatedly pans from the kids exiting them -- all the way to the school's entry doors. Yawn! Oh, sure, occasionally Shooter-K mixes things up and pans from the entry doors to the kids, but it's still a big snorefest!
Not only do the shots chew up a solid 15 seconds each (from beginning to end), but also they consistently drag through the infamous "dead zone" where nothing of any interest can be seen! Alas, Shooter-K is more interested in "covering his butt" than "covering the scene," so instead of pausing to analyze the subject matter in any creative or thoughtful way, he continues capturing, capturing, capturing -- as if he were a vacuum salesman demonstrating how his camera is capable of sucking-up more footage than his competitor's...
[Confucius Note #2: He who treats movie camera as vacuum, always ends up with footage that sucks.]
But not only is Shooter-K a ne'er-do-well and a doofus, he's also engaging in malpractice! For here, my dear friends, is what happens later that day in the newsroom edit suite: The reporter, who has already assembled a nice, tidy rough-cut of the 'Anyburb Gets Back to Normal' tale, has a rather precise 'hole' of 8 seconds for the elementary school material. When Shooter-K's footage arrives, the reporter is dismayed to learn that -- in NO shot -- is the rudimentary, visual information (kids returning to school) conveyed in less than 15 seconds! IT'S ABSOLUTELY, FREAKING MADDENING!!!
CU on the anguished reporter as he drops his head into his hands...
Meanwhile, in a Parallel-Universe (a calm, soothing place where rental cars all come with a koala bear in the passenger seat):
Shooter-X arrives at Anyburb Elementary well ahead of schedule, and spends time fully evaluating the task at hand. Channeling our muse, Orson Welles, she asks herself, "Where would be the best, FIRST place to position my 'eye' so that I can peer out at this world and record useful information in the most interesting, engaging way?"
She quickly realizes that if she drops down low, near the edge of the main sidewalk, and aims her camera toward the school, she is rewarded with dramatic, Wellesian depth. As the buses pull up, she's ready! Sure enough, the little tikes' feet appear -- bopping up and down in the foreground -- quickly receding until the full body of each child is revealed, marching toward the school's signage (which can clearly be seen in every frame of this splendid composition).
Yessiree, here's the shot in all its decisive, clear-eyed glory: excited, bouncy, jubilant kids -- a veritable herd -- continuously flowing in from one edge of the frame, but never disappearing as they noisily return to the school through the main doors...
From Citizen Kane: Shooter-X has the good sense to take a low-angle (like this one). Such a shot will simultaneously show the school signage in the distance -- and the 'shrinking' kids marching from FG to MG to BG -- as they near the doors.
This shot is about more than just perspective. The 'story' it tells is of a devolving spectrum of behavior: self-control (in-focus) in the FG... recklessness (out-of-focus) in the BG. What story do your shots tell?
Knowing she's found the "sweet-spot," Shooter-X now starts playing around with movement. At first, she introduces a slight pan -- each frame of which contains all the pertinent information of the shot. Next, she starts with a Dutch-angle and softly returns to square. She then inverts the strategy by squaring off, before gently tilting into a sublime Dutch-angle. Prior to retreating from her spot, Shooter-X zooms in tighter to the school signage and gently pulls out. From the first instant, we feel the presence of happy, little heads floating atop colorful coats...
We immediately get it: kids are entering the school!
In a well-constructed composition, the energy achieved by mere tilting can provide all the movement a shot needs.
Only when Shooter-X knows she's captured the main enchilada, is she confident enough to experiment with close-ups and the like. After all, she is not sure how much material her reporter might need to complete the entire report. She zooms into the school signage and floats across it. She moves near the entrance and captures precious close-ups of the children's angelic faces. Lastly, after noticing an overturned tree out in the playground, she runs over to the far side of it, and sets up a poignant rack-focus: from the gnarled roots (in the foreground) to the resilient, little school (in the background).
From Citizen Kane: The noise of the snow globe shattering is what caught the attention of the night-nurse, so -- from a purely technical perspective -- this shot makes no sense. But great poetry is not about logic; it is about visceral impact. Think of the shots you could create if you unleashed your "inner-poet"...
Contented that she's done all there is to do, Shooter-X delivers her footage to the news station, then celebrates a job-well-done with crumpets and Twinings at the local teashop. Not long thereafter, the reporter assembling the piece is TOTALLY stoked! "Wow," he thinks to himself, "this Shooter-X person is worth her weight in gold!"
CU on the happy editor as she shoots a confirming smile back at the giddy reporter.
While there will never be a 'last word' on this subject (how could there be?), this article is intended to be a friendly guidepost for all shooters who wish to improve their craft. At the highest level, you, the shooter, are involved in one of the greatest art forms the world has ever known. At the lowest level, you, the shooter, are still involved in one of the greatest art forms the world has ever known. The difference? In the latter instances, you have to work a thousand times harder to bring the art up to 'the surface'.
It can always be done, but it requires effort, intelligence, anticipation, determination, technical know-how, and a sense of purpose. But most of all, you have to CARE. Are you up for that? Then here's what you're going to do: routinely take the time (we're talking minutes, not hours) to mentally digest the challenge every situation presents. The question you should always pose to yourself is, "how can I position my camera to convey information that 'gets to the heart' of what I'm being asked to capture?" Then do it!
If you're videotaping babies crawling around in a day-care setting, you'd better darn well get down on the floor, because that's where the-world-of-babies is: on the floor!
If you're shooting a story about high-rise window-cleaners, you best get over your fear of heights, because if you don't palpably communicate the feeling of being really high, you've failed.
If you're filming a documentary about a couple that has 26 children, please be sure to compose more than a few shots that state, unequivocally: these parents are COMPLETELY OUTNUMBERED!
Shooting a prison gang that works under Arizona's searing, midday sun? -- make every effort to gather some long-shots of the sweating inmates being 'consumed' by the shimmering heat.
If you're shooting a film about a Dominican baseball player who's had an enormous impact on his hometown, present him large in the frame. And so on...
Eventually, you'll find that channeling your 'inner-Welles' is so integral and easy it will feel as if you're simply channeling the inner-YOU. And, really, isn't that what poetry is all about?
that specializes in bringing important conceptual ideas to "life" in unexpected ways.