In the first of our Workshop series, Director of Photography Lorenzo Levrini offers readers three often overlooked cinematic concepts in independent filmmaking.
I’m a working cinematographer, but I also have a real interest in how cinematography is taught. I teach on university filmmaking programmes, and have my own workshops, called London Film Lighting Workshops. Through these classes, I come into contact with a lot of aspiring cinematographers and cinematographers just starting out. I’ve also shot for a lot of first-time directors.
In this article, I’d like to explore three cinematographic concepts that are often not considered by new directors and cinematographers.
Where do I put the camera and why?
As directors and cinematographers, we think a lot about our shot sizes, and what lens we are going to use. What we don’t think about enough is the position of the camera.
What is depth rendition? Check out the following animatic, courtesy of Filmmaker IQ:
This animatic shows a subject, the foreground rock, staying the same size in the frame as the depth rendition changes. Perspective is expanded when the houses in the background are pushed away, and compressed when they are brought towards us.
We often say that wide lenses expand perspective and tight lenses compress perspective. This is only true for a fixed shot size. In the animatic above, the photographer compresses the background by using a longer lens and then walking away from the subject. It is this walking away that changes the perspective: what actually controls depth rendition is the camera position. If we zoom in and out on a subject from a fixed camera position, the perspective does not change.
The conclusion is an important one for filmmakers: your camera position embeds indelible depth cues in the image which are forever there, no matter what lens is used.
Let’s apply this to a conversation at a dinner table. Many directors and cinematographers – without thinking twice – would choose a lens, let’s say the 32mm, and use the same lens and the same distance to cover each side of the conversation. But what if we wanted to tell the story from one character’s narrative point of view?
If we want to feel closer to character A, we could keep the camera closer to that character. Instead of repositioning for the close up of B, we could simply spin the camera around and change the lens. By matching the eyeline angle and shot size, the change will be invisible to most viewers, but they will subconsciously feel closer to A – because they are!
This technique is very powerful. If you need to achieve intimacy, there is no substitute for getting right in there with the camera. Zooming right in on a long lens won’t do the same job. Consider the following sequence from SOROR, a short film I shot for Director James Webber:
The first shot is over our protagonist’s shoulder. It tracks her to the window, ending up in this frame. She sees her sister arguing with her boyfriend.
We cut to a close up of our protagonist, with the camera very close to her face. I wanted this shot to have great intimacy, to get inside her head. She’s worried about what’s happening, and I wanted us to be able to read it in her eyes. We are much closer here than anyone would normally be to an actor, and it embeds depth cues in the image which give the viewer that subconscious feeling of intimacy.
We then cut to the third shot; we are back over the shoulder but on a longer lens. The perspective hasn’t changed from shot 1, as the camera hasn’t moved. The longer focal length gives the impression of heightened awareness. As the argument escalates and our protagonist gets increasingly worried, she ‘zooms’ into the couple in the distance, and this is the effect given by using a longer lens from her position.
How can this help us as directors and cinematographers? We can ask ourselves: Who is this scene/film about? Who do I want the audience to empathise with? How should this change throughout the course of the scene/film? What narrative point of view shifts do I want to create? Answering these questions will give you an important starting point for where to put the camera.
The world in front of the lens
This one is more for the cinematographers. To film something is to translate the three-dimensional world in front of the lens into a two-dimensional image. In the film days, the ‘monitor’ was just a video tap, and wasn’t a reliable reference for how the image would look. We had to look at the scene with our eyes, or through the optical viewfinder, and we knew that we had to apply our eyes, our meters, our experience, to determine how the scene would photograph.
The trend I see emerging amongst those who have never touched a film camera is that they appear to be chained to the monitor. In the digital world, the monitor, or the EVF, is a good guide to what you’re going to get. But what’s the problem with never sticking your head out past it? Before, we were looking at the scene. Now, we’re looking at a translation of it. And we are doing everything by looking at the translation. The camera is conceptually between us and the scene. We are chained to it. You never learn to think in three dimensions. You never learn to think volumetrically.
You may answer: So what? As DPs, we need to be able to light the space rather than just the shot. We need to be able to observe nature and recreate it in a space. We need to be able to go on a recce and extract meaningful information. We need to tell the studio how many space lights to hang without needing to see the scene through a monitor. We need to be able to pre-light a set. In a nutshell: the camera should be conceptually behind us.
So how do we get out of this habit? Get a 35mm SLR camera. Go out and shoot some film. I shot my second feature on an Arri D21. The image is not good enough for today, but it’s still worth popping into Arri to try out what’s it’s like to shoot with an optical viewfinder in the D21 or Alexa Studio. Get your head out of your phone and look at how the light falls, in a room or on the street. On set, start lighting before the camera is ready. Light the scene with your eye, then look through the camera and see what it looks like. Repeat this process every day.
There’s no right or wrong way to do coverage. On one hand, the temptation is to edit the scene in your head and to shoot only what you need to create that. On the other hand, a great editor, given a few options, can adjust the tone and emotion of your scene to perfectly suit the film or to re-purpose a scene. We see an example of this in this video at 11:00-21:00. J.J. Abrams’ editors discuss the power of editing in shaping emotion and character perception, using an example from Super 8.
There is a balance to strike, and it’s often difficult for beginning filmmakers to strike the right one.
The advantage of minimal coverage is that you have fewer setups per day, so more time to dedicate to each setup, which generally leads to better quality. Actors have to repeat the scene fewer times, which can help keep performances fresh.
The advantage of slightly more coverage is that you have greater flexibility in the edit to shape emotion, craft performance, adjust timing, pace and rhythm, fix problems, and explore new ways of telling the story.
The big pitfall of coverage for a cinematographer is that it’s hard to maintain a strong creative direction when doing a lot of different shots of the same action. If you’ve decided that the camera should move in a certain way, be in a certain place, or follow a certain character’s story, doing a lot of coverage can dilute that creative intent, leading to weaker material. This gets even harder when working with more than one camera.
The answer for me is to never fall into the mindset of ‘spraying’ the scene: staging something in a space and flying around, capturing everything you can from every angle you can. I always begin from an editorial understanding of how the scene will work in the film, even though I know that might ultimately change. I start from the idea that the creative approach decided upon with the director – the tone, feel, movement, style – is king, and any coverage must slot into that. As an example, if, based on what I wrote above about camera position, we decided that the scene should be highly subjective to a character, then if extra coverage is thrown in, I’ll either keep the camera close to that character, or, if that’s not appropriate, I’ll let the character’s state of mind and perception drive the behaviour of the camera.
There you go: three things to think about when you shoot or direct your next film.
For those interested in lighting, I run my own private lighting workshops called London Film Lighting Workshops. We’re currently selling an advanced workshop for those who have some lighting experience but want to take it to the next level and learn to light naturalistically for film.
We are hosted by a major rental house, offering students the chance to get hands-on with the full range of professional lighting equipment.