If you’re a film school graduate or dropout, or just someone who’s been on a few sets, then you probably know the cinematography basics. You’ve the 180-degree rule and three-point lighting, and you’re ready to put your skills to test as you transition from classroom cinematographer to real-life cinematographer. Here are a 15 cinematography techniques to try out to help you master the art of writing with motion.
Cinematography Technique 1: Get Creative With Conversation
We see it in every film–two characters are having a conversation. There’s a wide shot of both characters, then an over the shoulder (OTS) shot followed by the reverse OTS shot. While there’s nothing wrong with this, it can get dreadfully boring. Your characters are going to be talking to each other a lot so mix it up. Embrace the single, have your characters walk and talk, or give them an action while they ruminate on their life choices.
Cinematography Technique 2: Say No to Exposition by Embracing the Push
Rather than telling your audience why something is important, show us. Try slowly pushing in by moving the camera closer to your subject. The push is best used sparingly and a little push goes a long way, but when done right it can create beautiful tension and imply meaning rather than beating your audience over the head with your point.
Check out how tense things get in Interstellar with a few simple push-ins:
Cinematography Technique 3: Get Defensive with your camera moves
Want to make a character look particularly menacing? If you have a script where your characters are in the heat of argument and you want your audience to feel that heat, have one character step towards camera. As they step towards you, shift back ever so slightly. Play around with angles here too. Shoot your bad guys from a low angle and make the camera inferior. In this way, the camera is a character too and by bringing liveness into your cinematography you allow your audience to feel the mood of the cinematic room.
Cinematography Technique 4: Disorient your viewer by breaking the 180 degree rule
Remember the 180 degree rule? Great, now break it. If you need a refresher, it’s that imaginary line between two characters that you don’t want to cross (here’s a helpful video from Film Riot). You may remember losing points on your film grade for crossing that line with your camera. Why? Because it’s disorienting to the audience when one character is on one side and all the sudden they jump to the other side. But what if you want to disorient your viewer? This one works great for horror films or films where you character isn’t exactly right in the mind. Tastefully breaking this rule can allow your audience to feel as disoriented, scared, or confused as your main characters.
Cinematography Technique 5: Have your character lead the camera
The term character-driven is often used to describe a film where the story largely focuses on the inner transformation of your main character, so it works really well when you’re cinematography is driven by the character as well. A great way to do this is to move the camera only when your character moves first. Dance with your characters and let them lead. The effect is as if the character is pushing the camera and thus the story.
Cinematography Technique 6: Use a Long Lens to nail the hit in a fight
One of the most powerful tools you have as a cinematographer is your lens. And while shooting a character, using a longer lens farther away vs. shorter lens closer up can show the same amount of the character’s body, but have a wildly different emotional impact. When using a long lens, your characters will appear closer together. Foreshortening happens with long lenses—where there appears to be less depth between foreground, midground, and background. This works great when you want to stage a fight and keep your actors safe. Have your actor attacker swing just behind the cheek of your actor victim on a long lens, pair it with good sound effects, and you’ll have your audience cringing.
Check out this scene from Fight club to see foreshortening in action.
Cinematography Technique 7: Get Personal with the Jonathan Demme Close up
If you’ve ever seen an interview with the late Jonathan Demme, you’ve probably heard him speak glowingly about his long time collaborator/cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. They became known for the “Jonathan Demme Close up”–the type of shot where the actor delivers their lines staring directly down the barrel of the lens. This simple move creates an uncomfortable intimacy between character and viewer, and when it’s Hannibal Lecter piercing into your soul, you can’t help but squirm a little.
Cinematography Technique 8: Make your own Interrotron
What the Jonathan Demme Close Up is to narrative films, Errol Morris’ Interrotron is to documentaries. When conducting interviews, Morris has his subjects stare into an interrotron–a two-way mirror mounted in front of the camera that reflects Morris’ face so that the interview subject can both stare directly into the camera and lock eyes with the interviewer. This move is frequently used by Netflix documentaries (Wild Country, Amanda Knox, etc) and is fairly easy to emulate. DIY your own with two-way mirrors or use a teleprompter!
Cinematography Technique 9: Pre-visualize like a pro
Unpopular opinion: I hate storyboards. Storyboarding is great when you have a storyboard artist, but until then your stick figure art isn’t helping anyone. Consider opting for previsualization instead. There are programs out there like Cine Designer (made by KitSplit friend and advisor Matt Workman), Shot Designer, and a handful of Adobe products that will work, but you can also previ with a regular old camera and stand-ins. It’s especially helpful when you’re just starting out and can alleviate pressure on the day.
Cinematography Technique 10: The Quadrant System Can Bring Your Film to Life
The Quadrant system is so subtle and effective it’s kind of mind-blowing. Here’s how it works–your frame is divided into four equal parts (or three or two) and each part of the frame tells a different story. It’s a great way to distinguish and differentiate each character’s arcs, moods, etc.
Here’s a great video that uses the film Drive to show just how effective it can be:
Cinematography Technique 11: Create a Mood Board and Reference Everything
You’re a cinematographer. You’re used to thinking visually. When you sit down with the director to plan out the look of the film use a mood board to collect film stills, photographs, patterns, paintings and more. There are a lot of great mood board apps out there, from Pinterest to several film-specific tools; you can read about some of the options here. Or go old school and collage; whatever gets the creative juices flowing.
Cinematography Technique 12: Think Like an Editor
The editor is your film’s final storyteller and there’s nothing worse than getting in the editing suite and realizing that a part of your footage just isn’t working. The solution? Start thinking big picture and put yourself in the editor’s shoes. Camera coverage (the amount of footage shot from different angles, shot sizes, etc) is crucial…and the only way to truly know how all the puzzle pieces to your film will fit is to have a good idea of what the final edit will look like.
Cinematography Technique 13: Shoot Film
Shooting digital offers a lot of great shortcuts, but if you really want to train your eye, then try relying on it less. Shoot film so you don’t have the luxury of chimping (looking at your camera’s LCD screen as soon as you have taken a photo). Use a light meter. Learn how to eyeball the rule of thirds without the grid. Cover up the viewfinder. You may find you’re better than you think and when you go back to digital you’ll be able to work faster and with more accuracy than before.
Cinematography Technique 14: Keep your audience guessing by changing perspectives
When your film has a big reveal or twist, then a great way to keep your audience guessing is by playing with camera’s point of view. Try switching from a subjective point-of-view to a objective point-of-view and vice versa. Notice what it does. Go hand-held and tell the story as if the camera is your main character. Then have your main character walk into frame. You’ll create a voyeuristic feeling and insinuate that there is something bigger going on.
(example: an education)
Cinematography Technique 15: Use your tools and stay up to date!
Film school never really stops. Tools change quickly and it’s important to keep learning. Learn how to read false colors on monitors and external recorders and how it can help you achieve the look you want. Use your phone as a director’s viewfinder or light meter with great apps found here. Study up with Youtube tutorials and awesome books from Focal Press. If there’s a look or move you want to achieve, chances are someone has done it already. Figuring it out is just a matter of staying in the loop.
Whether you went to Film School or not, mastering cinematography is nothing more than practice. Test out these camera moves and see which ones work for you and which ones don’t. Or invent your own signature move and we may just blog about it someday 😉
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