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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.

The Power of the Static Close Up

Posted by Gil Bettman on Monday, December 26th, 2011

It is a well known fact that the static close up is the money shot of a dialogue sequence.  Yet novice filmmakers, like my students in the film school at Chapman, often forget this.  They are too caught by the trend in contemporary film to shoot with a highly energized, constantly moving camera.  All they want to do is make the camera fly around like Tinkerbell.   That’s great; but moving shots are complicated and burn up a disproportionate amount of precious time and money.

Go ahead; move the camera!  But never forget that the cheapest and easiest shot – the static close up – is also the most powerful shot in cinema.   It completely levels the playing field.   A close up in a no budget wonder like Paranormal Activity can be just as compelling as a close up in a mega budget monster like Avatar.  If the script is solid and the actor is delivering a great performance the best way to captivate an audience and tell the story also happens to be the cheapest and easiest.  Simply put the camera in close on the actor’s eyes and hold it there.  This is the no-budget director’s secret weapon.

As animals we are bio-programmed to look into a person’s eyes when they are talking or emoting, because the eyes are best source of the data our brain needs to successfully compute the full meaning of everything which is happening in front of us.  The closer you put the camera to the actor, the bigger the actor’s eyes on the screen, the more data is there for the audience to consume and be affected by the story.

Serge Leone understood this.  In 1964 he had next to no money to make A Fist Full of Dollars.  His lead was an unknown Hollywood contract player named Clint Eastwood.  But Clint had charisma, and Leone realized that when Clint was exuding it, if he put the camera close enough to Clint’s eyes – closer than almost anyone had dared to put it — it would wow the audience.   The rest is history.  Leone’s understanding of the power of the simple static close up made Clint a megastar, created the spaghetti western, and the turned the Fist Full of Dollars trilogy into an international boxoffice phenomenon.   Thus did an unknown director, with next to no money, a passable script, and a lead actor with charisma become a giant in the history of cinema.

Anyone reading this blog can do the same.  And amazingly, in 2012 it is actually easier to do than it was in 1964, because it requires much less money.  Serge Leone had to pay for 35 mm stock and processing.  Now all you need is $ 3000 for a Canon 7D SLR camera, and a DP with talent and you can produce close ups that look just as good on 40 foot high screen as any in A Fist Full of Dollars or Avatar, for that matter.  Truly, the dream is closer at hand than ever before.  You just need the right script, the charismatic actor and the static close up.

Which Widgets Do You Want to Make?

Posted by Mark W Travis on Saturday, December 24th, 2011

We’re all storytellers. That’s why we’re in this business. True, there are many people in this business who are not in it because of the stories but because it is a business. There are widgets to be sold and they can make a lot of money selling them. But most of us are the widget makers. And at the very outset we need to decide what kind of widgets we want to make. What kind of stories do you want to tell? And why? Do you want to tell stories so that you can sell them, make some money, have a career? Or do you want to tell stories because you have something to say? Be clear where your priorities are. Embrace your goals with passion and move forward.

I seem to be the kind of widget maker that feels he has something to say. Somewhere locked in my DNA is a compelling energy that has insists that my stories must have meaning and purpose and integrity, that they have the intention to enlighten and inform. I could blame my parents, I guess, or their parents. Not sure who to blame. But somebody is responsible. This wasn’t my idea.

So, there are widgets I want to make and widgets I want to support. It’s a small, enthusiastic, iconoclastic, often discouraged struggling community that I belong to. But it’s the community that produces widgets (films, books, plays) of such passion and insight that they leave me breathless. What more could I ask for?

But what are these widgets? Stories? If the widgets we are making are stories, then how do we define them?

And, before we attempt to define story, I want to make on thing very clear. As storytellers, as purveyors of yarns that are intended to entertain, educate, inspire or intrigue, we have to be aware that our yarns can assume several different forms. Like shape-shifters, our stories can take morph themselves into a variety of shapes depending on the story, the intended recipients and the circumstances. Some possible shapes: novel, short story, poem, play, film, memoir, oral, audio, visual, etc. You get the idea. But before we decide what shape we want our story to shift into, we need to understand what the story is. What it is all about. What it wants to say. What journey it wants to take the recipient (listener, audience, viewer, reader) on. When you, the storyteller, the widget maker begin to comprehend the essence and raison d’être of your story you will also feel, from within the story, which shape will serve it best. You need to allow the story to tell you. Be careful that you don’t force your story into the wrong box just because you like the box.

As widget makers we have to respect the widget, the story. The story is our only reason for being here. Honor the story. Honor the art and craft of storytelling. Be a slave to your story and it’s possible that your story will raise you above the masses.

Making Action Matter

Posted by Gil Bettman on Monday, December 5th, 2011

Dear Friends of Hollywood Film Directing,

I also welcome you to our blog.  My passion is directing the camera.  Directors used to leave this up to the cinematographer.  But in the last forty years the tools for telling a story visually have become much more powerful, and all filmmakers need to know how to use them expertly in order to make their films succeed.  In this blog and those to follow I intend to reveal some secrets which will help you attain the expertise needed to become a master visual storyteller.

Making Action Matter

The close up is the low budget/no budget filmmaker’s most powerful tool.  This is just as true for action sequences as dialogue sequences.  Action sequences, no matter how bare-bones, take time and cost money – much more money than dialogue sequences.  But that money will not be effectively spent unless you can put the audience into the action.  The doorway through which the audience enters the action is the eyes of the main character.   So shoot as many close ups as possible of the protagonist as he/she battles through the action sequence.

This is not as self-evident as it seems.  When you are working with stuntmen setting up cameras  to shoot stunts, or just doing a simple handheld foot chase through alleyways it is all too easy to get caught up in the science of orchestrating the ballet of flying cars and flying bodies and heightening the action by putting the camera in the right place with the right lens.  But the most important shots are the simplest and the easiest to do – the frontal close ups on the protagonist.   All the money you are spending on the stunts is only being spent to make the audience think that the main character, with whom they have come to identify, is in jeopardy.  You want them to fear that he will not triumph against all the death dealing forces opposing him even while they hope that he will prevail.  This dynamic of hope and fear fuels the fire of suspense.  This is what you are spending the money for.  But it will not be there unless you show the hero’s eyes to the audience in frontal close-ups.

Nicolas Winding Refn fully clearly understands this.  The opening action sequence of Drive is dominated by tight shots on Ryan Gosling’s eyes which reflect each and every subtle change in his character’s emotions as he pilots his getaway car from a robbery site in downtown LA to the Staples Center through an ever narrowing gauntlet of cop cars and helicopters.   Go back and look at George Miller’s low budget (under one million dollars) high-action masterpiece, The Road Warrior.   Just like Refn in Drive, Miller plugs you into the hero’s struggle by shooting tight shots on Mel Gibson face which reflect every modulation of his inner being as he wields his nitrous-fueled hot rod like Luke Skywalker’s light sabre.

To make sure that he could shoot the close ups of Gibson and all the freaks who oppose him as cheaply and quickly as possible, and be able to fine tune their performances, Miller and his production designer came up with the scheme of putting huge fuel tanks on the trunk lids of all the vehicles.  This way the all the shots inside the cars on the drivers’ eyes did not see out the back windshield and so could be shot on a sound stage, poor-man’s process – by having grips rock the cars to simulate motion and blowing wind in the drivers’ faces.

Bob Zemeckis borrowed this tactic from Miller when he had the flux capacitor mounted on the trunk lid of the DeLorean in Back to the Future.  And Zemeckis hoped to do the same on Car Crazy, a low budget action film, which we developed for Universal together, but which never got made.

To give credit where credit is due, the entire concept described in this blog – that action sequences only work if you shoot enough close ups on the protagonist to put the audience into their heads – was first articulated for me by Zemeckis.  By way example, he said: “You can smash a thousand cars together and film it with a hundred cameras, but that’s not a movie.  That’s a spectacle.   But you put Thelma and Louise in one car and shoot it with one camera and drive it off cliff and that’s a movie.”


Gil Bettman

The Invisible Story

Posted by Mark W Travis on Saturday, November 26th, 2011

Dear Friends of Hollywood Film Directing,

Welcome to our new Blog site where we will be sharing with you ideas and insights into the world of film directing.

Since my area of expertise is the Story, the Script and the Actor, I’m going to start with Story. Every film is an attempt to tell a story. That’s a simple concept. But before we launch ourselves recklessly into the world of film directing we need to look at what constitutes a story and a screenplay.


The Invisible Story

One of the curious and annoying things about writing screenplays is their limitation. Yes, telling a story on the screen is very exciting and full of possibilities both real and imagined. You would think there were no limitations – and you would be right. The possibilities seem endless and the limitations are few. But, we’re not talking about movies right now. We’re talking about screenplays. We’re talking about those 90-120 page documents that are attempting to describe what will be on the screen. And, just as the script is not the story (we’ll get to that later), the script is also not the movie.  The script is, by its very nature a reduction of the story and the potential movie to its most basic elements. What it is saying is: “Here is what you will see and here is what you will hear.” That’s it. And we can define that even a bit more. A screenplay has four basic elements: Location, Character, Behavior and Dialogue. That’s it. In every scene you are limited to: here’s where it’s happening (location), here’s who is in the scene (characters), here’s what they are doing (behavior) and here’s what they are saying (dialogue). That’s it.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Wait a minute, there’s a lot more. There are all those parentheticals, all those descriptions of emotions and feelings, hopes and dreams, disappointments and despair!” Of course, you’re right. Any self-respecting screenplay writer is going to infuse the script with as much description of the emotional journey of the characters as possible. And there are hundreds of clever tricks and tools that can help you do that. And in many ways it’s necessary to do that so the reader can be guided to experience the story the way you want.

Experience the story? So why can’t location, character, behavior, and dialogue alone convey the story? Why isn’t that enough? Well, it’s not enough because it’s not the story.

Okay, now we need to back up a bit. We’re back to ‘what is the story’? Not, what is a story, but what is the story you are trying to tell? And if all this description of characters, behavior and dialogue isn’t the story, then what is?

The story you are telling is beneath the story you are showing. The story you are telling lives within the characters. The story you are telling is invisible, it is silent – unseen, unheard. Your story is sequestered in that cave called Subtext.

In future blogs we will explore how to find and expose the subtext of your story.


Mark W. Travis