I went to a recent screening of “Letter From an Unknown Woman” at MOMA with a friend and fellow Max Ophuls devotee. As always, I was delighted and swept away by Ophuls’ complex love stories and equally complex camera moves.
After the film, we discussed what we believed to be a fear, among many (not all) contemporary American directors, of moving the camera in favor of conventional coverage of a scene (Wide shot, Medium shot, Close Up, Close Up and figuring out the pacing in the edit).
Of the film elements filed under cinematography, I believe camera movement is the strongest indicator of my director’s voice. Certainly lighting plays an important factor in storytelling, but it’s the nuances of the camera that, for me, give me a glimpse into the genius of a director: An Altman zoom. Spike dolly. Varda tracking. Tarkovsky slow pan. Spielberg combo push in / tilt up.
Plenty of films draw strength from limited / zero camera movement. Off the top of my head, perfect examples are “Stranger than Paradise”, the duel scene in “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”, Jeanne Dielman and several moments in Haneke films.
If you are still in the stages of defining your aesthetic, I invite you to expand on how you evoke emotions from your audience via camera movement.
Why do I think directors stick to conventional “made for tv” style camera set-ups?
A number of potential prohibitors come to mind:
Believing in your teachers more than yourself. When I was in film school, a teacher I really loved told me two pieces of “wisdom”: 1. you never end a film on a close-up and 2. panning back and forth during a dialogue scene was unwise only unless the camera movement was motivated by who was speaking. (see the “lamp scene” from “Le Mepris” around the 1:01:45 mark).
A challenge in film school is wanting to please teachers, especially ones you admire and respect, especially if their opinion of your films affects your scholarships. We were taught the basics of conventional coverage, which I think is extremely important. However, I now see it is imperative that all filmmakers watch a lot (A LOT) of films on their own and stock up on visual alternatives. I tell my students at City College that whatever I say is strictly my opinion. It is up to them to cultivate their own voice.
What if you dodged film school and heroically jumped right into directing your own films? There are other “authority figures” to contend with.
Sometimes the DP, 1st AD, Editor and Producer need to take a back seat. I applaud directors who are firm in their vision. If you have a camera move that seems unique, unwarranted, labor intensive or whatever but is clearly in line with your intentions for the film? It must be shot.
I’ve witnessed, countless times, a director be persuaded by their more experienced crew to break up a tracking shot, eliminate a moving shot all together or schedule to shoot both the “wacky” shot and traditional coverage (a delicate way of saying “you can’t pull it off”). Usually, we have the director and the film’s best interest in mind. We want to stay in budget and on schedule. However, our vision can be myopic. Only the director can envision the bigger picture. If the shot is vital, express that in pre-production and rely on our experience and expertise to make it happen.
If I dislike my director’s choice for a camera set-up, I employ my “Three Times” rule. First of all, I won’t say anything unless I can conceive of an alternative shot that still creates the desired effect. If I can think of an alternative, I will mention it up to three times. If the director still shoos me away? It’s never brought up again. Part of my job is trusting my director’s vision and aesthetic. I can’t be so arrogant as to believe I always know what’s best for their film. Directors continue to amaze and delight me with their ideas. And that’s the whole darn point and joy of collaboration.
Simply Not Knowing or Noticing
Some directors, especially those with strong theater, acting or screenwriting backgrounds, are extremely focused on the story and their actors. They’ve not taken the time to learn all of the ways the camera can support their vision. Even if they watch lots of films, they may not find inspiration beyond the content. On what word does the camera dolly? At what moment does the camera boom up? Listening to the director’s commentary on a dvd can be a great way to learn about camera movement. Three books that I recommend are Setting Up Your Shots by Jeremy Vineyard, Setting Up Your Scenes By Richard Pepperman and Master Shots Vol 1: 100 Advanced Camera Techniques to Get an Expensive Look on Your Low-Budget Movie, by Christopher Kenworthy.
The number of films with impressive camera moves is endless. I assume everyone has seen
the opening sequence to “Touch of Evil” and the Copacabana Club shot in “Goodfellas”. Although small HD cameras (and clever editing) can make these types of shots seem easy, I’m still impressed by the camera work in “Silent House”.
I find inspiration everywhere. The stretcher tracking shots in the “Six Feet Under” opening sequence still give me chills. The running shots in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” are as exhilarating as “Jules and Jim”. If you want to see brilliant direction, notice how involved and textured the background action is in the oil derrick explosion scene in “There Will Be Blood”.
Now let’s take a moment to discuss shooting Handheld
Hand Held: What a glorious opportunity for lazy camera work. I think everything should be done with intention. However, I know sometimes that “intention” is to shoot a scene without permits, shoot six pages in one hour, shoot a continuous shot when you can’t afford a dolly or steadicam, shoot a fight scene and hide the fact you don’t know how to choreograph it. I know all of these scenarios from experience.
I ask you to raise your expectations on how handheld can communicate and strongly support your narrative. Entrust your camera operator / DP with the same guidelines you would give if the camera were on a dolly. Direction such as when the camera will rest, when it will edge someone out of frame or drift away from a conflict. One of the best contemporary films I’ve seen with inspiring handheld is “The Messenger”. The best example I could find online begins around the 1:20 mark but I encourage you to see the film in its entirety. When you watch the film, notice who is favored in the frame, who is excluded and how that affects you. The director, Oren Moverman, also did “Rampart”, another film with really thoughtful and deliberate camera movement.
No conversation about exquisite handheld operating would be complete without an example from Wong Kar Wai and his longtime DP collaborator, Chris Doyle. The combination of color, lights, small practical locations and movement in “Chungking Express” is hypnotizing. There are a ton of Chris Doyle interviews on YouTube to find inspiration.
And then there’s Southland. By far, the best camera operating currently on television. Every episode of that show blows me away. Yes, this is just an opinion, but I don’t know who can compete. This is a spoiler heavy clip from, I believe, two seasons ago.
Prepare. Prepare. Prepare.
One of my favorite science fiction films happens to have a reported budget of $7k and was shot on Super 16mm film. The Director / DP had no film experience prior to shooting. If you’re not familiar with Primer and the story behind it, it might prove inspirational.
Rigorous pre-production will balance out your limited finances, the inexperienced crew and tight shooting schedule. Shoot the rehearsals with your actors and try out different camera ideas.
If you’re blessed with an experienced crew, remember they are more than just technicians. Tell your DP the mood you’d like to create and ask what camera move they’d suggest to accomplish it. If you’re a DP, definitely collaborate with your Dolly Grip, Camera Operator and Steadicam Operator in the same way. If I run out of ideas, my crew is brilliant at offering more. Remember to ask them what equipment, tools and expendables they will need to pull it off and trust their suggestions.
In closing, a little poem actor, James Mason, wrote for the director Max Ophuls:
“A shot that does not call for tracks
Is agony for poor old Max,
Who, separated from his dolly,
Is wrapped in deepest melancholy.
Once, when they took away his crane,
I thought he'd never smile again.”