The Voice of the Camera

Credit: Cinema Guild

What does it take to make a movie scene effective?

Is it only the actors and the dialogues or there are other aspects too? The way cinema is perceived as an art of storytelling it takes more than just the actors and the dialogues to make a scene effective. Filmmakers move their camera in more than one style to tell a story in their own way. Some of them have their own signature styles too. A camera gives a narration of its own. It tells you to look closely, follow an actor, ignore something, grasp something, it tells you to search for something, makes you feel how the actor is feeling and all of these just through the various styles of capturing a shot.

Through its angles and movements it tells you to feel certain emotions or to gather certain information. Imagine if all of the scenes where shot with a common eye level frame size and the movements where the way we handle a handicam, how messed up and dry it would have been. What is included in the shot, where it is focused, the order in which they are placed, how the camera moves from one subject to the other, all of this gives out important clues about the state and mood of the scene. Camera work is an important part of the storytelling, in fact if done properly it gives out more information than dialogues do. There are some common type of angles and movements. Each of them serves a different purpose.

The Shot Sizes: The size of the shot is determined by the size of the subject being captured in relation to the frame size. There are three types of shot: close up, medium shot and long shot.

When the shot is a close up then the camera focuses on the face of the subject leaving out other objects. In this shot the whole of the frame is filled by the face. The motivation behind this shot is to show the facial features of the actor. In this way the camera is telling you to focus on the emotions showed by the face of the actor without being distracted. Going beyond that, camera sometimes show only the eyes or the lips or other features of the face (think of a scene where sweat trickles down the actor’s face).

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Another type is the medium shot. Here the camera covers half of the actor’s body. With facial expression it also covers the body language of the actor. It leaves out room for other actors or the surrounding in which the actor is present.

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In the long shot the camera covers the entire body of the actor. Long shot is mostly used when a broader action is being tried to cover. For example trying to cover a battle taking place with a number of actors or sometimes to show a single actor in an empty space, trying to show isolation.

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POV Shot: A POV shot is point of view shot. Here the camera tries to show the action through the eye of one of the subjects. It is as if we try to see and feel how the actor is feeling at this time. A POV shot is also used to bring subjectivity to the scene which means the camera wants to make you feel an opinion or state of the character. Remember a scene of a person swimming in water. When the camera moves in and out of water in an unstable manner it gives us the point of view of the person swimming (remember the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan). Here the other ways to show the subject in water can be a typical long shot but here is where the POV shot is different. By doing it with the POV shot it allows the viewers to feel the struggle of the actor in the water and serves as a better reminder to the viewers on how a person feels while swimming. Another example can be given of a POV shot of a roller coaster. An angle like the camera is placed at the front end of the roller coaster facing forward gives the thrill of a roller coaster ride. A normal long shot would give you basic information of the actors riding the roller coaster but this POV shot would give you better feel of how the actors are feeling.

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Apart from these there are angles in which a camera captures the scene. Some of these angles are eye level, high level and low level.

Eye level: Here the camera is leveled with the eye of the subject. This is the most comfortable angle and is used for the majority of the parts. It is usually used when the actor is speaking or reacting to a dialogue. It is done for a straight representation of the actors and isn’t much subjective. An eye level shot is basic but important. It allows the viewers to gather the basic information and then proceed without really getting hooked to it.

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High level: In the high level the camera is placed at a high level with the camera looking down. This is done when no other angle is able to cover the action taking place. This is done mostly to cover a broader action taking place trying to cover maximum subjects. Think of a scene where a battle is going on and the director wants to show the huge number of soldiers. This may not be possible if it is done simply from the eye level shot. At other times it is usually used to show the person getting intimidated or simply because it is the point of view of a taller person or going to an extreme level to show the point of view of a giant.

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Low level: The low level serves the opposite of the high level. It maybe dominance from an emotional perspective or trying to cover the point of view of a relatively shorter person.

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In addition to these a camera is set into motion to go from one angle to the other. The two common types of motion are Pan and Tilt. A pan involves the movement of camera sideways while the tilt involves the movement of camera up or down.

A slow pan gives a feeling of the camera searching for something or it wants you to take all the information while it moves and finally stops. It goes on till it has found it. On the other hand a fast paced pan gives a feeling that, as it moves it wants you to skip all the information it gives while the pan is in progress and wants to take only the information when the pan stops.

A tilt involves subjectivity as if the person is looking down or looking up from his level. This is effective when trying to show a person who is looking down from a building while standing at a higher level or when a person standing at a lower level is trying to look up at the tall building.

Apart from these the cinematographers disrupt the angles or mix more than one type of camera movement to achieve a shot. Sometimes to follow the movement of the subject the camera moves with it. Think of an actor making his way through a bazaar. The camera moves sideways with him. Or think of an actor walking through a narrow path. A Dolly shot is used to move forward or backwards with him.

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A zoom is one of the most effective camera effects when trying to draw the viewers’ attention towards a subject. By a wider angle first it establishes the state which the subject is in and the camera movement when it zooms tells the viewers to focus on the subject.

The focus is very effective when there are multiple subjects on the screen and it wants you to think about only a part of them. Think of a shot involving a close up of a table with a gun placed on it and an actor at some distance. The camera first focuses on the gun with the actor blurred and then the gun is blurred and the actor is in focus. This all takes place without disrupting the camera angle and the shot size. This is effective in telling the viewers about the gun and then showing the state of mind of the actor who is thinking about the gun and possibly thinking of making a move.

Credit: Warner Bros.

A scene is achieved by mixing these angles and movements. Filmmakers combine these to achieve the best shot which perfectly gives out the right emotion of the scene. The sense of how much camera work is effective and important in storytelling can be made out by certain scenes which convey a different sense of feeling which would otherwise have been difficult to achieve by normal camera work. A Dutch angle is achieved by disorienting the camera from its normal axis. It gives out a sense of unease. Think of the point of view of an actor lying in an uncomfortable manner. Another one is Dolly zoom where the camera zooms in and at the same time the camera moves backwards (remembers Raging Bull).

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Shubham Kumar

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