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Cinematography

Cinematography is the art of using, moving and positioning the camera and camera lens, deciding what and how thing appears within the camera frame, and how those things should be lit. 

That’s a lot to take in. 

Simply put, cinematography is the art of using a video camera and filming footage.

It’s important to think of film as a visual language. And, like a written language doesn’t just tell readers basic important, the camera doesn’t just show audience information (although that is part of it).

Good writing, for example, makes a reader feel as well as understand. Likewise, cinematography helps create mood, feeling, emotion. This is all done through camera shots, movement, and angles, as well as framing, composition, and lighting.

If some or a lot of this language is new to you, don’t worry; we’ve set out a selection of cinematography skills and techniques in an order where you can slowly but surely build your skills and confidence when it comes to setting up camera shots and filming footage.

Recommended for Year levels: 5-VCE

Learning areas: Drama, English, Media & Media Arts, Technologies

Capabilities: Creative and critical thinking

1. Camera shots

The word ‘frame’ is used a lot when it comes to films and filmmaking, and it's used to describe the rectangular frame a camera sees through.

When you're framing a camera shot, 'framing' refers to how you decide what will appear within the camera frame.

This can involve deciding how far, or how close, the camera will be to what it is filming. Deciding how far the camera is positioned from a subject (usually a character) or object doesn’t just dictate what the audience should be looking at, it hints at what is important, and can also convey a feeling. 

We call this distance a camera shot. Below is a video showing examples of three main types, wide shot, mid-shot, and close-up.

Check out a heap of examples of shot types over at Exploring shot types if you haven't already.

Then, download and open the document Film It - framing shot types below

Activity: framing shot types
1. Add rectangular frames (digitally or physically) onto the image to illustrate the following shot types: long shot, mid shot, close up, and extreme close up
2. Add a note for each shot type and explain why a cinematographer might use each shot.

Download the template Film It - illustrating shot types below. You’ll notice there are 7 frames labelled with shot types.

Activity: illustrating shot types
1. Draw an example of each shot type to show your understanding using one to two characters in each panel help illustrate the shot type
2. Give your characters expression and or indicate movement that relates to what each shot type can be good for capturing.

If you have a bit more time, nothing is better than going out and actually filming or photographing examples of shot types.

Activity: photograph shot types
1. Grab a camera and photograph examples of each shot to show your understanding. When doing this, give whoever is in your photos some basic acting instructions – to do this you’ll need to think about what the shot types are good for.
2. Present your images as a poster or a presentation, and include a short written or verbal explanation of what you were trying to capture in each image.

2. Camera angles

The way the camera is angled can contribute to the meaning the audience will get from the shot and can be used to make characters look a certain way. You might choose a low-angle to make something or someone look powerful, scary, heroic, or important. And you might choose a high-angle to get the opposite of that.

The angle can also help an audience get a sense for what a character is experiencing and what they are feeling, all these by simply changing the angle of the camera.

Watch the video below. It goes through three key types of camera angles, low-angle, high-angle, and the dutch angle.

Check out some examples of camera angles:

Exploring camera angles

Looking at examples of camera angles is all good and well, but you won't get the hang of them unless you try them out yourself. 

Try one or all of the following activities:

Activities: camera angles
1. Create a poster that shows examples of all the different camera angles shown above, but find images from movies you know. You can take screen grabs from the film itself, or search online.
2. Using a camera, take a series of photos of a subject, preferably a person. You can partner up with someone in your classroom. Take a photo from a low angle, an extremely low angle, high angle, eye level, and dutch angle. Before taking each photo, give some instruction to the person posing for the photo that relates to the reason you're using that angle.

4. Camera movement

When framing the camera, and establishing the camera angle, you’ll most likely be in a stationery position with the camera on a tripod in what we call a static (not moving) position.

Your camera doesn’t have to be static though, it can move! And how it moves is important to how the viewer will experience the footage you film. Shaky hand-held style might make the audience feel ill but it might make them feel part of or close to the action. Smooth tracking shots might feel more assured and again bring the audience into the action, but in a very different way.

Watch the video below which illustrates two camera movement types in panning, and tracking.

Find out more about camera movement:

Exploring camera movement

Activity: Camera movement
Requirements Video camera
Large, open space to film in
Ideally a tripod, but you can make do without
Overview Film a simple scene of a character walking across a large, open space. You'll film the same scene three times, each time a little differently
Steps Film the character from side on using a long shot, with the camera static (still, not moving)
With the camera in the same position, film your actor again but this time either pan with, or towards, your character. So 'with' meaning following them, 'towards' meaning the camera pans from the direction the character is walking towards.
Now, with your camera off your tripod, shoot the action again but track behind (follow) your character and film. You can try the opposite, and track from the front as your character moves.

Reflection:

Watch back all your footage, and discuss what you liked about each camera movement.

Things to think about include; did some shots convey more information to the viewer? Do you think some would make the audience feel different from others? Were some more visually engaging than others?

4. Composition

Composition refers to how you show the world, characters and objects inside the camera frame.

The composition of your camera shots is important as you can draw the audience’s eye, make things within the shot feel significant, or just look visually pleasing. Watch the video below. It will introduce a few techniques, symmetry, rule of thirds, crash zoom, and focus pull.

Symmetry

When things are symmetrical in the camera frame, it means there are elements that seem mirrored, usually vertically.

So if the subject is placed right in the middle of the camera frame, you have some simple symmetry.

If the character is placed in the middle of the frame and in the background, on the left and right-hand sides there are similarly placed characters or objects, then you’ve got even more symmetry!

Composing a shot that has symmetry can give the world of your film a very orderly, organised look. If a range of characters are filmed symmetrically in a shot then it also makes them feel organised, choreographed even. If a single character is filmed symmetrically it can have the effect that they really are the centre of this story or this scene.

One filmmaker who loves using symmetry is Wes Anderson. Watch the supercut of symmetry from his filmography below to get some ideas of how symmetry can be used well.

Activity: filming symmetrically
1 With your video camera, or even still camera, find a setting (indoors our outdoors) that you can frame to look symmetrical. A hallway is a great example, but feel free to experiment.
2 Set up another camera shot with a character right in the middle of the camera frame.
3 Try again but this time see if you can get more than one (even three) character in the camera frame, and organise them until they are symmetrical in your shot.Playback your footage: what do you think of your symmetrical shots? What feeling did they give to your setting and your characters?

Rule of thirds

You can take the word ‘rule’ as you like. The rule of thirds is not necessarily a rule you should always follow. Basically, it’s just an idea that shots are more visually pleasing if the landscape, object and character sit along with one or more of imaginary lines, three vertical, and three horizontal – so, a nine-square grid across your rectangular frame. Rule of thirds suggests that a rectangular image, like that video cameras use, will look better if subjects, objects and backgrounds are positioned to fit one or more of these imaginary lines.

Activity: Rule of thirds
1 Find a setting, preferably outdoors. Position and point your camera toward the horizon, or the closest thing you can get to a horizon, say, the edge of a sports field, or a classroom on the other side of an open area. Set up a wide shot, and make sure you’re positioned so the horizon landmark is even horizontally across your frame.
2 Film it first with the horizon landmark running right through the middle of your frame.
3 Now tilt the camera so the horizon landmark now runs along the lower third line of your frame.
How did it look? Now let’s get more complicated!
4 Bring a character or an object into your shoot. Position and film them standing in the middle vertical line of your shoot.
5 Now ask them to move to either the left or right-hand vertical third and film them.
6 This shot will have used at least two lines from the rule of thirds grid. Playback your shots: Did the shots where you used the rule of thirds look more interesting to you?

5. Crash zoom

It’s an extreme name but crash just means quick. Crash coming from the fact it looks as if the camera might actually crash into the thing it’s zooming in on. A crash zoom should zoom in quickly onto a subject or object. Depending on how sensitive the zoom on your camera device is, you may have mixed results. Crash zooms are great for drawing the audience’s attention, in a not very subtle way, to something.

They also come with a sense of urgency – and are therefore great for getting a sudden reaction from a character – or if you’re crash zooming onto an object, it might be an object that might present danger, or is surprising, like a scary dog, or a $50 note.

Activity: try a crash zoom
1 Familiarise yourself with your camera’s zoom. It might be clunky but experiment anyway.
2 Depending on how accurately you can pan and tilt the camera, we suggest setting up a mid-shot with one or two characters.
3 Zoom in on one of the character’s faces, just slowly to begin with. Change the angle of the camera if you need so their face is visible. If you have a camera lens that tells you the zoom distance, make note of it. If not, you may have to do it by feel.
4 Now, slowly zoom out until you’re back in a mid-shot.
5 Start filming, have the other character say something the character you’ll crash zoom on can react to, then, when your actor reacts, quickly zoom in on their face.
6 It might take you a few tries to get right as you might need to get a feel for how much you’ll need to zoom. Playback your footage: how successful were you? What was difficult about the crash zoom? Did you like the effect of the crash zoom?

6. Focus pull

The ability to manually focussing a video camera or device can differ in difficulty from device to device so pulling focus yourself might be easy or challenging depending on what you have available to you.

If you have a lens you can manually adjust (by turning the lens), you'll have the ability to focus your shots yourself (and not rely on auto-focus) and also, during the filming of your shot, adjust the focus so it moves from one thing to another.

It can be tricky, but the results can be really rewarding.

Performing a focus pull means you can move the viewer's attention from one thing to another in a subtle and visually interesting way. As long as the subjects or objects you're shifting focus between are different distances from the camera that is. In the video above, you might notice the focus moves from the hands on the case, to the face of the person holding the case. This moves our attention from the case itself to the reaction of the person opening the case.

So focus pulling involves moving from something closer to the camera (foreground) to something further away from the camera (background). Of course, it can work the opposite way as well, shifting from the farther object to the closer one. Focus pulling can also involve having nothing in focus, and then bringing the subject of your shot into focus.

In the gif below you can see someone turning the camera lens and bringing themselves into focus using a mirror.

Activity: try a focus pull
1 Set up a simple scene, indoors our outdoors, with two subjects (actors). Setup a mid-shot, with one actor approximately 1-2 metres further away from the camera.
2 Practice focusing on the actor in the foreground. If you can make note of the lens position (usually marked on the lens in millimeters) when the first actor is in focus, then do so.  
3 Now, adjust the focus so the second actor comes into focus. Make note of the lens position. You should now have two measurements, the mm setting for actor one, and the mm marking for actor two.
4 Come up with a reason to change the focus in your pretend scene. Does actor one say something that actor number two reacts to? Get creative!
5 On film and TV sets, the person adjusting the focus isn't necessarily the camera person, often camera assistants are needed to adjust the focus. So if you have one person behind the camera, and another next to it where they can adjust the focus and see the millimetre markings you've made note of, then they'll do a much more accurate job.
6 Now practice and film your attempts at pulling focus. Whoever is pulling focus can experiment with the speed of the focus pull. Making sure your actors don't move, and getting the timing right with the focus pull and the reason you're pulling focus in the scene can be challenging.

We haven't gone through every possible technique as there are a lot.

If you want to expand your skill set when it comes to composition and camera techniques we recommend the following:

Leading lines: another great way to subtly draw the audience's attention, set up your camera in relation to your setting, so there are lines leading to the point you would like the audience to look. There's a great photography site breakdown here.

Whip pan: remember panning? Well, a whip pan is a super quick pan that can be used to transition from one scene to another, or from one thing (subject or object) to another. Like the crash zoom, it's an extreme example of how to pull the audience's attention quickly and directly to something. This video is really great and shows you different uses for a whip pan, and how to perform them.