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Cinematography
Techniques:
The Different Types
of Shots in Film
By Timothy Heiderich
Produced by

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What is Cinematography?…………………………………………………………………………3
The Basics of Cinematography……………………………………………………………….. 4
The Types of Shots and What They Mean……………………………………………. 6
What Kind of ‘Character’ is My Camera? ………………………………………………11
Shooting a Basic Scene ……………………………………………………………………………. 13
Conclusion…………………………………………………………………………………………………16
Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
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Cinematography is the art of visual storytelling. Anyone can set a camera on a
tripod and hit record, but the artistry of cinematography comes in controlling what
the viewer sees (or doesn’t see) and how the image is presented. Film is a visual medium, and the best-shot films are ones where you can tell what’s going on without
hearing any of the dialogue.
With some basic knowledge of composition and scene construction, you can plan
scenes using this visual language. Learn how different shots work together to form
a clear, cohesive narrative and how to compose each shot in a way that is visually
pleasing for the viewer. Understanding these simple rules will help make your films
more thrilling and engaging.
What is Cinematograpy?
Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
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There are some simple cinematography techniques that will have a great impact in
making your videos look more professional.
The Rule of Thirds is a technique of dividing the frame up into a 3×3 grid, splitting
your frame into nine boxes. Our natural impulse is to put our subject dead center, but
a centered subject will look like they’re caught in a spotlight, and by dropping them
in the center of the frame, it gives them nowhere to go. Instead, by positioning your
action in any of the four vertices where those nine boxes meet, you create a balance in
your composition that feels more natural. For example, a side view of a person driving a car: on the top left vertex is the driver’s head and shoulder, which follows their
arm down to the lower right vertex to the steering wheel. This creates a nicely balanced frame of the driver on the top left and the wheel on the lower right.
Relatives of the rule of thirds are Head Room and Look Room. Just as the rule of
thirds splits up your frame to add balance, head room and look room mean to give
your subject a little extra room in wherever direction they’re facing. If you are filming
a public speaker, position them so there’s a little less room at their back and a little
more above their head. Subconsciously, we picture the edge of the frame as a wall, so
by giving your subject more look room and head room, there is a space for them to
speak into. By not giving them enough look room, they’ll look like they’re talking to
a wall!
Varying your shots will keep your audience interested by giving them something new
to look at or an object presented in a new way.
Basic Rules of Composition
Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
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Find unique ways to show everyday things. Observing a scene from the height of
your camera operator can get dull; one way to avoid over-reliance on this point of
view is to meet your subject on its own terms. If you are filming someone setting
down a glass, rather than show the person from the torso up setting the small object
on a table, make the glass your subject and position your camera on the table, then
watch as a giant drink fills the frame. Your audience will know that because you
took the time to focus on this object that it must be important and helps keep the
visual element of the story from growing stale.
Add depth to a composition. Rather than imagine the scene taking place on a single plane,
use the foreground, midground and background to create depth in a scene. For example, a
factory worker has entered his boss’s office to ask for a raise. The subject of the scene, the
worker, is in the midground, while the large, looming figure of his boss occupies the foreground. Behind them, the factory scene hums along with dozens of other workers. You have
tied the three key elements of the scene (the worker, the boss, the factory machines) together
in one visually rich composition.
These are just the simple rules, but they will do a lot for improving the look of your
compositions, and will help you to start thinking of the frame as a canvas where you create
your images.
Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
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Your camera is a surrogate for your audience. The way it interacts with the scene dictates the way your audience feels they are interacting with the scene. How do you want
your audience to feel watching a scene? Do you want them to feel disoriented? Detached? Should the story feel serene, off-balance, or static? Do you focus on sweeping
grandeur or small details? Different shots convey different tones to a scene; answering
these questions first will help decide what types of shots to use.
Moving from long to close shots is a trade-off between showing informative visuals
or intimate emotions. You can’t have more of one without giving up an equal amount
of the other. Starting at the extreme long shot, actors are made very small compared
to their surroundings, but this is where you establish the scene and its elements. It is
also where you can express yourself visually in the patterns in scenery and shadows
that you are afforded at this range. At the opposite end is the extreme close-up that
puts a character’s emotions front and center. There is less contextual information at
this range, but at this proximity to a subject, the emotional intensity can be powerful.
Let’s take a closer look at the different types of shots and how they can set the tone for
a scene:
The Types of Shots and
What They Mean
Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
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Extreme Long Shot: Typically used to show subjects of relatively massive scale. Picture a mountain climber represented as a tiny speck against a vast expanse of snow,
the extreme long shot conveying the relative insignificance of the character struggling
against their environment. It is a study in scale and majesty.
Long Shot: The distance of the camera from its subject also reflects an emotional
distance; the audience doesn’t get as emotionally involved in what’s going on as they
would if they were closer. In a way, it makes viewers a casual bystander, somewhat
aloof to what’s happening. Take a couple arguing, where the details of their argument
are lost to the viewer, and only the big blow-ups are able to catch our attention. Something is happening, but we can’t be sure what it is.
Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
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Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
Medium Long Shot: falling between the long and close shots, this is more informative
than emotional. It is too close for the epic scale of a long shot and too far to convey
the intimacy of a close up, making it emotionally neutral.
Medium Shot: the medium shot is where we are starting to engage with the characters
on a personal level. It is an approximation of how close someone would be when having a casual conversation.
Close Up: More intimate than the medium shot, the expressions and emotions of an
actor are more visible and affecting and is meant to engage the character in a direct
and personal manner. You are starting to lose visual information about the character’s
surroundings, but the character’s actions are more intimate and impacting.
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Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
Extreme Close Up: For amplifying emotional intensity, the extreme close-up puts
the camera right in the actor’s face, making even their smallest emotional cues huge
— and raises the intensity of the problems behind them. This works for objects too:
the ticking hands of a clock, a bullet shell hitting the floor, the blinking cursor of a
computer terminal. What the extreme close up lacks in context, it makes up for by
taking a small event and making it enormous.
Dutch angle: Tilting the camera gives a subtle cue that something about the scene
is unstable or just a little bit off-kilter. The effect shows the unbalanced mental or
emotional state of the character, or to make the scene feel somehow unsettling.
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Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
Bird’s Eye Shot: Similar to the extreme long shot, this starts to get into the abstract
realm of shapes and lines. It is an opportunity to be completely divorced from character, and let the shape of a grove of trees, the tangle of a freeway overpass, or the
grid of city lights on a clear night dazzle the viewer.
Knowing what kinds of information these shots give your audience, think about
how each of them fit together to compose your scene. Using wide shots can make
your scene feel distant and impersonal or grand and epic in scale. Moving in very
close to the action gets your audience invested in the characters and what’s happening to them, but at the cost of disorienting them in visual space.
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Not being in front of the screen, it’s easy to forget that there is one very important
character helping to tell the story — the camera! As the cinematographer, your job is to
decide what kind of ‘character’ your camera is. Does it have an objective or subjective
viewpoint of the scene? Is it a passive observer or is it close to the action? Once you
start thinking of the camera as its own character, you’ll find this will dictate the shots
you use.
What does it mean to have an objective or subjective camera? An objective camera
is that of a third-party observer, like you watching a scene play out. When picking
your shots, ask yourself which character interests you. What do you think is important
to pay attention to? Picture a scene of a man leaving his wife and child on a business
trip. You can choose to focus on the wife planting a tender parting kiss on the man’s
cheek, or the young child’s preoccupation with a toy, or even a neighbor’s cheerful
wave. These are all elements in the scene; it’s up to you to decide what you think is
important to show.
What Kind of ‘Character’
is my Camera?
Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
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Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
A subjective camera takes the point of view of one of the characters, and
you witness the scene through their eyes. How different would it be to see the
same scene from above happen as an objective observer versus one of the characters? From the subjective point of view of the husband, you see the sadness
in the wife’s face and experience the disinterest in the child as the character
would. Or you can choose the child’s point of view, meaning you’ll only be
vaguely aware of the dialogue of the parting couple while the toy is the focus of
the scene. Each is a different perspective on the same event.
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Now that you understand how to use different shots to set the tone for a scene,
let’s go through the process of shooting a basic scene: two cowboys ready to draw at high
noon. Each shot is an opportunity to move in closer on the action. As your shots move
in closer, the audience becomes more involved in the scene.
First we start in the long shot, establishing the entire scene: a wide, high-angle view of a
dusty wild west town, overlooked by a clock tower. From there, we see our two gunfighters enter the scene. This shot gives context for where we are and what’s going to happen.
Once you have established your scene in the long shot, you can move in closer to cover
one of the characters in a medium. Here we get an opportunity to identify each of our
gunfighters.
Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
Shooting a Basic Scene
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Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
Each shot is meant to draw the viewer deeper into the scene by narrowing their focus. A close-up on the good guy will let us identify with him. A close-up on the bad
guy is our chance to dislike him. Getting closer to our characters helps us identify
who is in this scene and why we should care what happens to them.
Now we can draw out time by focusing on individual elements of the scene. A
close-up of the hero’s hand at his holstered gun. The bad guy’s hand doing the same.
Extreme close-up of the hero’s steely stare, then on the bad guy’s wild, panicked eyes.
An extreme close-up of the clock tower’s hands hovering on 11:59.
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Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film
Out to a medium to see the action in the scene. Each gunfighter drawing his
pistol, then a medium shot of the bad guy as he clutches his chest and falls over.
Finally out to a long shot, we see our hero walk off, the body of his vanquished opponent lying in the street. The wide shot allows the scene to decompress, letting the
audience come up for air after diving deep into the drama that just unfolded. Each
new shot pulls us closer into the action: first, a wild west town, then our hero and villain, their guns, push in close to read their emotions, then show the action. Finally,
back out to decompress from the scene. This is just one example, and there is an
endless variety of ways this same scene can be told using the given shot types.
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These basic lessons should get you thinking like a cinematographer. Treat your camera as another character in the scene, exercise proper framing of subjects, try different
camera angles and use the various types of shots to set the tone for your scene. By
understanding the language of visual storytelling, you will open up a whole new dimension to your films.
Conclusion
Cinematography Techniques:
The Different Types of Shots in Film