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Shooting for Character and Story... thoughts?


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#1 David Grauberger

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Posted 19 October 2011 - 01:04 PM

Hello all,

I'm wondering if other DPs can share their thoughts on specifically the shot list? I believe in order to be a great cinematographer its a marriage between the technical side of cameras, lighting, composition, color etc... and the intuition of telling a story through pictures. One cannot be a good cinematographer without both. I find a plethora of information online about the technical side of filmmaking, but little about the artistic story telling side.

the problem is this:

1. the director hands you a script
2. the 2 of you, you come up with a shot list.
3. you look at every scene and recommend a WS, 2Shot, MS, OTS and CU (possibly coverage with inserts)


done. there's my shotlist. But this will not give you Amelie, or Black Hawk Down. Inception was dreamt up with a heck of a lot more than just technical consideration.

So my question is, how do you guys shoot for STORY? How do you dream up and shoot for Character? I find I get bogged down in the technical side of cinematography and in the end, things are lit well, in focus, and composed accurately. But somehow I missed the emotional impact of the story.

I suspicion that what I'm seeking cannot be read in a book or article. I feel a bit like Van Gogh sitting down to a painting. Rather than putting feeling into the work, he sits there and remains in analytical mode in his mind. "use a filbert brush for trees...green compliments red, so use those next to each other...dont forget to put a base layer of brown before adding highlights... etc.."

I find it very hard to create anything with emotional impact, when you remain in analytical mode in you mind.

How do you guys juggle that? How do you manage the huge technical considerations of being a DP while at the same time switching that off and enjoying the creative art of picture taking. How do you engage your emotional creative side on set in the midst of constant technical questions?

I hope some of that makes sense. My apologies if it doesn't....
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#2 Adrian Sierkowski

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Posted 19 October 2011 - 03:00 PM

If you're lucky, you get to make a shot list, but often this isn't the case, you're handed one. Always keep in mind that the director is ultimately responsible for such things.

As for how to make emotion filled images and shoot for story; i don't think there is an answer. It needs to come from your "gut," formed through the years by your experiences. Things you've incorporated into you. For me, and this is only for me, I think of the feelings of each scene and then think of what kind of look would make me feel the way the script wants me to feel. Also, the shots can't be singular, and isolated, but need to fit into the overall film; to play and riff off of what was already (or is going to be) created in this film world. Perhaps the house has been dark the whole time when husband and wife are happy, quaint, warm, and then when they get divorced the wife is in the fully lit kitchen, highlighting the big empty room, before the breaks down and the camera tracks and pans away (for an example just out of my head from nowhere in particular). Such feeling will only work based on the "rules," you've established in the film-- it's visual treatment-- and only if the actor really gets the tears going and performs well (look at the "selling house" sequence in American Beauty for an example). This intuition must be grown. It takes a long time and a lot of references and life experiences.

As for technical considerations; I would say that eventually you know the technical aspects so well that you no longer need to dwell on them. They're second nature.
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#3 Luke Lenoir

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Posted 27 October 2011 - 12:22 PM

I recommend you watch films that emphasize character through the Camera. Where the camera plays an integral part in revealing character.

In my opinion SCORSESE does it best. Not because he's a genius, but because the man has an encyclopedic knowledge of film. Watch Mean Streets, Cape Fear, Goodfellas, Bringing Out the Dead, and Casino and admire all of the shot references. I don't like all of his films, but if there's one thing you can guarantee, it's amazing camera work.

Watching older films is the best way to understand. When film-making was still experimental. When it was still considered an art form and not an industry.

Watching Michael Bay films will get you a superficial knowledge of shot composition, character, mood, and pacing. Watch old noir films, french new wave, german expression, UK avante-garde, italian neo-realism, the american western, hitchcock, and of course the yakuza/samurai genres and you will not only pick up a wealth of knowledge on the subject, but also a sensitivity to it. You can then use what you have seen/learned in your own films to success.

I personally get very bored with modern cinema because it's all flash and bang, and no substance. There is very little artistic merit to films these days. Think of the camera as a paintbrush. It's trial and error.
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#4 Bruce Greene

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Posted 30 October 2011 - 02:41 PM

Interesting question.

So often, on small budget films, it is necessary to work "by the seat of your pants", rather than though a story board or shot list. Your intuition may rule here.

I think the most important thing here is to know the script really really well. And, review each scene before shooting.

The question I most often ask myself is "who's point of view" is this scene? From which character should the audience experience this moment? This can tell you when you want to be close to the action with the camera or to view a close up from far away with a long lens.

Think about the environment. Tha audience often needs to know the the lay out of the action so that they can imagine the next move or reaction of the character whose eyes you'll be showing this story point through. Wide shots are very important for this as they show your characters relationship to the space and other characters.

Once you've contemplated these questions, you can then go about thinking about how to light it, with the proper mood, emphasis on the most important part os the frame, and keeping all that equipment out of the shot. All while keeping on schedule.

It's almost never easy, but usually engrossing and fun!

Hope this helps a little :)
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#5 Jon Rosenbloom

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Posted 30 October 2011 - 04:27 PM

The big issue in getting away from, "50-50, over, over, and tighter" - besides the schedule - is the fact that narrative films are about actors, and you have to see their faces, you have to see their eyes, and they want to look good; so you start out with a lot of limitations of where you can put the camera, and how you can light. As I found recently when shooting a "film-noir," you can leave much of the set dark, but it doesn't work if you can't see the actors.

Given those limitations, one still has lots of photographic leeway: Is the lighting soft or hard, warm or cool, or somewhere in between? Do you shoot from eye-height or below, or above. Who's prominent in the frame? Who has the most "weight" in the frame? Is the frame harmonious or askew? Heavy lens, or shorter focal lengths? Or, do you restrain yourself, shoot straight as can be and let the story play out? These are all decisions that one usually makes in prep, but you can change them on set if your sure it feels right to do so.

I see very few movies these days, but, I thought Polanski's "The Ghost Writer," was quite masterful in its blocking and camera work. They very elegantly avoid the "50-50, over, over" parade, and the images, while never calling attention to themselves, set the mood perfectly. A very instructive film. (I stole from it for my own short!)
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#6 Justin Carrig

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Posted 16 December 2011 - 09:55 AM

Hitchcock and probably others started with the idea that the size of objects/people in frame should be directly related to their importance in the story at that particular moment. You could start with that simple idea when you work out each scene, what are you trying to communicate? Does the beautiful sunset and the mountains in the background really help communicate the story or is it completely distracting from the characters development. I think it helps to use your imagination to feel the emotions and movements you want. Picture if you were seeing this image you're about to shoot in the pieced together scene and how it would make you feel and think and then you could bounce ideas from there on how to achieve something better if you need to.

As a sort of training you could read scripted scenes, imagine how you would shoot it, then watch the scene as it was actually shot in the final picture and see how close you got, and think about where you were different, and why. You may have done it better yourself, but maybe you'll also see how some finer details you missed have a huge effect on the emotional impact of the final scene and then those details and techniques and choices would sink in like new tools for your own storytelling
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#7 Albert Smith

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Posted 18 December 2011 - 02:54 AM

Keep in mind every director/cinematographer relationship is different. The shot list can be a collaboration or not. That aside your question basically seems to be "how do you tell a story by where you place the camera" and that is a big question. There is an endless amount of things to take into consideration and there really is no right or wrong here....I mean its art you know....film. I think as a starting point its about learning what a camera placement will do to a scene and learning how to visualize that....when I'm collaborating on a project and talking about shots if neither the director or myself can picture a frame and what it will do we will usually plan to shoot tests or look for references and that helps a good deal. Think about the scene's as whole and how they will be covered...many may disagree but to get away from the technical you might want to throw out some of the traditions like the classic 2 over the shoulders and a 2 shot for a dialog scene open it up.

For example on a recent project we covered some scenes in one wide static frame, the reason for this being we wanted the audience to feel like they were looking in on the action of our characters without being with them.....as if they were watching them objectively from across the street, but at the same time the film is very much about the location the film takes place in and we wanted to make sure to show our characters as small in the context of this place so these wide static frames also served to do that as well...On the opposite side of things we had scenes where we wanted to bring our audience along with them, as if they were a third person along for the ride so we opened the camera way up handheld, wider lenses. Of course this is somewhat of an over simplification like previously stated there are millions of variables at play to help you choose your shots....the goal for us has always been find whats most important to the scene and try to bring that out with the camera.
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