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Shooting With a Moving Camera (Part II)

Posted by Gil Bettman on Thursday, January 19th, 2012



When you are making your low-budget, no-budget breakout film and you decide to move the camera you want to design the shot so that it eliminates edits.   In the final cut, the shot should play for as long as possible without a cut.  It is easiest to do this at the beginning of the scene, but you can also do it in the middle, or at the end or throughout the entire scene.

Or you can design your entire movie so that by moving the camera you never have to cut.  Hitchcock did this in 1948 when he made the film Rope.  Why?  For the same reason that Orson Wells designed the opening shot of a Touch of Evil so it goes on for about five minutes and covers a mile of ground, and Scorsese did the amazing continuous shot of Ray Liotta and Lorraine Brocco walking into the Copacabana in Goodfellas and Spielberg did the shot of Tom Cruise and his family escaping an alien invasion in War of the Worlds which lasts for two and half minutes and covers five miles and which you can see in its entirety on seminars page of this website.   Why?  Because all these great directors love moving shots and one unique property of a moving shot is that it can go on, and on (for an entire movie) without a cut.  Whereas static shots run out of information and stop doing a good job of telling the story after four or five seconds.

Therefore, when you expend precious dollars doing a moving shot make sure you get the maximum bang for your buck and design the shot so it does – however briefly – the same thing that Hitchcock, Wells, Scorsese, and Spielberg did so brilliantly in the shots cited above: eliminate edits.  This is how you begin to put yourself in their league.

And this is why the side-by-side two shot is your go-to money shot when you want to shoot a dialogue scene with a moving camera.  As I explained in my last blog, this shot does the best possible job of telling the story because it shows you both eyes of both actors and in a dialogue scene the center of the drama is in the eyes of the person who is talking.

But the other great thing about the side-by-side two shot is that, theoretically, it never has to cut.  The shot can last as long as the actors can continue to walk forward backing the camera up in front of them.  This makes it the ideal shot when the space permits; which is why Cameron Crowe used it in Jerry Maguire in the scene cited in the last blog in which Jerry and Avery break up.  The scene takes place in the monstrous meeting hall of a convention center.   Crowe also used it later in Jerry Maguire when Jerry meets Rod outside the locker room after a game and they cross a wide open space on their way to the team bus while Rod complains to Jerry, “The only reason I am getting my brains blown loose is because you weren’t asshole enough to get me my 10 million three, f***ing months ago.”

The side by side two shot works in both these scenes from Jerry Maguire for two reasons.  First, location.  You have got the real estate to pull it of.  And second and more importantly, there is a good, dramatic reason for the actors to be walking and talking side-by-side.  In the Avery/Jerry scene, Avery turns her back in anger on Jerry while she distributes press kits throughout the convention center.  In the Rod/Jerry scene Rod bitches at Jerry while walking to the team bus.  Jerry, trying to be a good agent, has to tag along and absorb Rod’s abuse.  Once you can identify these kinds of dramatic moments which take place in these kinds of locations you are well on your way to learning how to shoot dialogue with a moving camera.

Writing With One Hand Behind Your Back

Posted by Mark W Travis on Monday, January 9th, 2012

We’re all storytellers, each and every one of us. We tell stories all day long – at meetings, dinners, on the phone, taking walks – and even to ourselves. We post stories on Facebook and Twitter. We text our friends and colleagues. We live in a world immersed in story. And then occasionally we record our stories in novels, newspaper articles, short stories, plays, poems and screenplays. In many ways we are master storytellers because it is an art form that we practice every day. But, also, in many ways we are novices, neophytes, fledglings, because we stumble and falter with the telling of so many stories. We struggle with the extraordinary demands of each form or genre or delivery system. We’re like infants trying to take those first steps when inside we feel the desire to run.

Each form of storytelling has its opportunities and limitations. In the novel the visuals have to be created with words. Journalists struggle with maintaining the required objectivity while feeling the pull to infuse their stories with an element of personal intimacy. Playwrights battle the limitations of the stage and the restrictions of time. But, one of the most severe sets of limitations is experienced by screenwriters. The screenplay appears so seductively simple with its standard format and three-act 120-page structure. But its simplicity is deceptive. Regardless of the story you want to tell, the genre you have chosen or the theme or subject matter – your hands are tied. You are limited to only four storytelling tools. There are only four elements that you are allowed to use. They are basic, they are necessary, but they are not enough.

Quite simply they are:

  1. LOCATION. You are allowed to describe and define the location where each scene takes place. You can give as much description as you want, but for the sake of time (remember, only 120 pages) and in order to maintain the forward momentum of the story you want to keep it brief. The fewer words the better, just enough information to let us know where we are.
  2. CHARACTERS. You can tell us who is in each scene. You can have as many characters as you like but again for the sake of time (remember, you are attempting to create the illusion that the reader is seeing a film, not reading a novel) keep it brief. Be “laser”. Get to the point and move on.
  3. BEHAVIOR. This is where things begin to get interesting. You are encouraged to describe and define the behavior of the characters, individually and collectively. Now you have the characters in motion and we can begin to get a sense of what they are thinking, feeling, intending, etc.
  4. DIALOGUE. And, finally, you can write what these characters say, what they say to each other or even to themselves. They can speak as eloquently or passionately as you like about anything.

And that’s it. That’s all you get to write. Quite simply, your task is to write what we will see and what we will hear on the screen. And what you don’t get to write, what you can’t describe because it can’t be seen or heard are the feelings, the emotions, those deeply unexpressed desires and fears of your characters. Of course you can slip in bits of dialogue about the history or back-story of a character that will help. You can also have your characters attempt to reveal what is going on inside in their dialogue or behavior. But for the most part, the core of your story, the inner life of your characters cannot be expressed on the screenplay page.

Your story and your characters are driven by these deep feelings, desires and emotions.  This is what your story is all about. And you can’t write it. This inner, subtextual world is the genesis of your story, the stimulation and the reason for the story. And on the screenplay page it has to remain unwritten, implied, suggested, subtextual.

We go to see films to experience the inner life of the characters, their hopes and dreams, desires and disappointments, their fears and fantasies. And we have to remember that the screenplay is not the blueprint we would like to have. It is a snapshot. It is only a result, a documentation of what happens as these characters are pursue their most deeply felt desires and objectives, as they fight their most deeply felt demons, obstacles and fears.

As a writer, if you really wanted to bring your reader into the core of your story, into the deepest and darkest corners of your characters inner lives, then you should write a novel. But if you want to engage your audience in the cinematic experience of living with your characters for a concentrated and intimate two-hour journey, then you need to write a screenplay.

The challenge of writing for the screen, this Zen-like, Haiku-like art form is a noble and magnificent challenge, mastered by few, admired by many and embraced by the masses.

Shooting With a Moving Camera (Part I)

Posted by Gil Bettman on Wednesday, January 4th, 2012

If you are going to make it to the top as a director in today’s film industry you have to learn how to shoot with a moving camera.  All of today’s top directors move the camera as much as time and money allow.   In Avatar. Cameron never stops moving the camera.   On your breakout film, you will not have the budget to keep the camera in constant motion like Cameron.  But you must move it as much as you can afford, because if you don’t, your agent will not be able to use your breakout film to get you work.

When I teach a seminar it takes me about four hours to explain the basics of how to shoot with a moving camera.  But here is a simple tip to jump start the process.

Drama is conflict.  Nothing is more boring than watching two people agree with each other.  So every dialogue scene involves an argument, of some sort.  When people argue, they tend to stand nose to nose.  They get in each other’s face.  So if you want to move the camera, have one them turn their back in anger and walk away.

This is what Avery does in Jerry Maguire, when Jerry and Avery are on the verge of breaking up.  She asks Jerry, “What was our deal when we got together?  Brutal truth.  Remember.”  And walks away from him.   Jerry follows her, stating, “I think you added the brutal.” The camera now has to back up in front of them to keep them both in frame.

The resulting shot – the side-by-side two shot with both actors coming toward the camera is the money shot in any dialogue scene that you want to shoot with a moving camera.  The center of the drama in a dialogue scene is in the eyes of the person who is talking.  This is because human beings are hard-wired to look at that spot on a movie screen.  The beauty of the side-by-side two shot is that it shows the audience both eyes of both actors.   It presents the audience with the maximum amount of data that can be transmitted through the eyes.  So it does the best job possible of telling the story – without cutting.

Telling the story is of paramount impotence.  The extent to which you do that successfully will determine the extent of your success as a director.  But not cutting is also important when you move the camera.  Why?  We will get to that in the next blog.