The Shooting Methods In Filmmaking – Cinematic Techniques For Beginners

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As we covered The Shots: Building Blocks of a Scene in the previous post, I promised to share information on shooting methods. So, here it is as promised.

There are many different ways to shoot a scene, but some basic methods are used most often. The following summaries are some of the most fundamental and frequently used techniques for shooting a scene.

Here is the list of the most fundamental and frequently used techniques for shooting a scene:

  • The Master Scene Method
  • Coverage
  • Overlapping or Triple-Take Method
  • In-One
  • Freeform Method
  • Montage
  • Involving The Audience: POV

The Master Scene Method

The master scene method is by far the most frequently used method of shooting a scene, especially for dialog scenes. Actions sequences are an exception to this. It seldom makes sense to use the master scene method for these, as it depends entirely on repeating the action of the scene many times.

In principal, the master scene method is quite simple: first you shoot the entire scene as one shot from beginning to end this is the master. Once you have the master, you move on to the coverage. Except in rare cases, it is always best to shoot the master first, as all the rest of the shots must match what was done in the master. Not shooting the master first will frequently lead to continuity problems.

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The master does not have to be a wide shot but it usually is. Nor does it have to be static, a moving master is fine too. The important thing is that it is the entire scene from beginning to end. For complex scenes, we sometimes break it into mini-masters within the scene, just use common sense to plan how to best get the scene covered.

Coverage

The coverage consists of the over-the-shoulders, medium shots and close-ups that will be used to complete the scene. Think of the master as a framework for the whole scene, coverage is the pieces that fit into that framework to make it all work together. This is why you should always shoot the master first. It establishes the continuity for the scene, everything you shoot after that has to match what was established in the master. After you have shot the master you will have to pick one side (one of the actors) to begin with. It is important to do all of their shots before you turn around and do the coverage of the other actor, because changing the camera position from one side to another often involves changing the lighting and moving other equipment. It is a huge waste of time to do some shots of one side, move to the other side and then come back to the original side. The shots you do on the second actor are called the answering shots, and it is important for editing that they match the coverage of the first actor in their lens size and focus distance: this is to keep them a consistent size as you cut back and forth between them.

Coverage Example from the movie Titanic

Some basic common sense principals apply when shooting with the master scene method:

• Shoot the master first; if you try to shoot coverage first and the master later, it will likely cause problems in continuity.

• Get the whole scene from beginning to end.

• If characters enter, start with a clean frame and have them enter.

• If characters leave, make sure they exit entirely, leaving a clean frame. Continue to shoot for a beat after that.

• You might want to use transitional devices to get into or out of the scene.

• Shoot all the shots on one side before moving to the other side of the scene. This is called shooting out that side.

If you know you are going to use mostly the coverage when you edit, you may be able to live with some minor mistakes in a master. It is easy to get carried away with dozens of takes of the master.

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Overlapping or Triple-Take Method

The overlapping method is also called the triple-take method. Say you are filming the manufacture of a large axle on a big industrial lathe. It’s a real factory and you are doing an industrial video for the company. The metal piece is expensive and they are only making one today. The point is that you are not going to be able to repeat the action. You can ask the machinist to pause for a few minutes but there is no going back to repeat.

On the other hand, you don’t want to show a 5 or 10-minute process all from the same angle that would be incredibly boring. You need different angles. If you were using the master scene method, you would film the scene from one angle, then set up the camera for a different angle and repeat the scene, and so on for over-the-shoulders, close-ups, and so on. The triple-take method is useful for scenes where the action cannot be repeated.

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Overlapping

So here’s what we do: as they bring in the metal piece to be cut, you shoot that in a wide shot to establish the scene; at that point you ask the workmen to pause for a moment. Then as they put the piece on the lathe, you quickly move in for a close-up. The machinists back up a few steps and bring the metal piece in again and carry on with the action, all the way up to securing it in the lathe. You then quickly move to another angle and get more of the action. In the end you will different angles that should cut together smoothly.

Let’s take another example: a lecturer walks into a room, sets his notes on the lectern, then pulls up a chair and sits down. This is where the overlapping part comes in. You could get a wide shot of him coming in, then ask him to freeze while you set up for a closer shot of him putting the notes on the lectern, then have him freeze again while you set up another shot of him pulling up the chair.

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What you will discover is that the shots probably won’t cut together smoothly. The chance of finding a good, clean cutting point is a long shot. It is the overlapping that helps you find smooth cut points. Here is what will work much better: you get a wide shot of him walking in and let him take the action all the way through to put- ting the notes on the lectern. Then set up a different angle and ask the actor to back up a few steps. Once you roll the camera, the actor comes up to the lectern again (repeating the last part of his walk). You then shoot the action all the way through to pulling up the chair.

Again you halt to set up a different angle, and have the actor back up from the lectern, and repeat the action of putting down the notes and then carrying it on through to the end of the scene. All this overlappping will enable you to cut the action together smoothly with good continuity cuts. The most important principal to take from this is to always overlap all action, no matter what shooting method you are using. Giving the editor some extra overlap at the beginning or end of any shot will prevent many potential problems when editing the scene.

Opening Sequence from Touch Of Evil

In-One

Of all the methods of shooting a scene, by far the simplest is the in-one, sometimes called a oner or a developing master, or the French term plan-scene or plan-sequence. This just means the entire scene in one continuous shot. A scene might be simple as “she picks up the phone and talks” in which case a single shot is probably plenty. Some in-ones can be vastly more complicated: such as the famous four minute opening shot of Touch of Evil or the long Steadicam shot of entering the Copacabana in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

A caution, however: when these shots work, they can be magnificent, but if they don’t work for example, if you find in editing that the scene drags on much too slowly your choices are limited. If all you did was several takes of the long in-one, you really don’t have much choice in editing. Play it safe shoot some coverage and cutaways just in case.

Still from the movie Goodfellas by Martin Scorsese

Freeform Method

Many scenes theses days (and even entire movies) are shot in what is commonly called documentary style. Think of movies like Cloverfield or The Hurt Locker; the camera is handheld, loose, and the actor’s movements don’t seem preplanned.

Still from the movie Cloverfield

It seems like documentary style but it is not really. When shooting a real documentary, we can almost never do second takes, or have them repeat an action. Our aim in shooting fiction scenes like this is to make it seem like a documentary. In most cases, scenes like this are shot several times with the actors repeating the scene for several takes. Since the camera is handheld, the camera operator usually does their best to follow the dialog: they pan the camera back and forth to always be on the person who is speaking. This can be a disaster for the editor. Imagine that you shoot a scene three times like this. You end up with three takes that are almost the same and the camera is only on the actor who is talking.

Imagine trying to edit these three takes together almost impossible. What you really have are three takes that are mostly the same, which is a nightmare for editors. Editing is all about having different angles to cut to. If all you have is three very similar takes, there are not really any different angles to cut to. Also, you have no reaction shots of the person listening; as we discussed before, reaction shots are important to the storytelling and the editing. So what to do?

Still from movie The Hurt Locker

Shooting The Freeform Method

Here’s a method that works well; we call it the freeform method:

• On the first take, follow the dialog. Do your best to stay with the actor who is speaking. This is the dialog pass.
• On the next take, pan back and forth to stay with the person who is not talking. This will give you lots of good reaction shots, which are important. It will also give the editor lots of things to cut away to. This is the reaction pass.
• For the third take (if you do one) improvise: follow the dialog sometimes, go to the nonspeaking actor sometimes, occasionally back up to get a wide shots whatever seems appropriate. This is the freeform pass.

All these together will give you a scene you can cut together smoothly and give the editor lots of flexibility to cut the scene in various ways and to tighten up parts that seem to be dragging.

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Montage

There is a special form of editing used in dramatic narrative filmmaking that does not aim for continuity at all; this is called montage. A montage is simply a series of shots related by theme. Say the theme is “Springtime in the city” you might have a series of shots of the flowers blooming, gentle rain showers, the sun breaking through the clouds, that sort of thing.

The Baptism from The Godfather (Montage)

Some kinds of montage advance the story but without linear continuity. For example, Rocky prepares for the big fight: we see him working out, punching the bag, running on the streets of Philly, then finally running up the stairs to triumph. It is not realtime continuity it takes place over months but we see the story develop. It’s a series of related shots, not scenes with linear continuity.

All of these methods share one common goal: to be invisible. We don’t want the audience to be aware they are a movie because this would distract them from the story. There are some exceptions to this of course, such as when Ferris Bueller addresses the audience directly; at times such as this all conventions of fiction are tossed aside, generally for comic effect

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Involving The Audience: POV

We have talked about POV in one of my previous post The Conceptual Tools Of Cinematography . If you want a perfect example of POV check the mentioned post.

POV example from the movie Chinatown

Recall the three forms of literary voice: first person, second person, and third person. In first person storytelling (whether in a short story, novel, or in film), a character in the story is describing the events. He can only describe things that he himself sees. First person speaks as “I.” Such as “I went to the zoo.” Second person speaks as “you,” as in “You went to the zoo.” It is someone who is not the speaker but who is part of the conversation. Third person, on the other hand, speaks about “they,” as in “They go to the zoo sometimes.” Third person is completely objective, and first person is completely subjective.

In this context, objective means merely showing or stating what is happening without getting involved. Imagine we are watching some people arguing from 20 feet away. In this case we are just watching “those people over there” and we can see them arguing there is not much motivation for us to get deeply involved physically or emotionally. The complete opposite is when we are one of the people involved in the argument: we are completely engaged in every way.
Second person is somewhere in between. Let’s think of it as if we are standing right behind one of the people arguing, right over their shoulder. We are not directly in the argument, but clearly it is much more involving and engaging than viewing it from a distance.

Tarantino presents the “Helpless” point of view shot from the movie Kill Bill

There are few clear-cut lines of delineation between subjective and objective only gradations. We have previously talked about giving the scene a point-of-view (or even several points-of-view). Each camera angle has a point-of-view as well, and there are several variations to that meaning. Our two people are talking; the camera stands off to one side of them. The camera is essentially part of the scene, since it sees the people but it is not involved in the scene in any way. It is a neutral observer. It is completely objective third person.

This is like the omniscient narrator in a novel or story. An omniscient narrator or POV is a voice that tells the story but is not a character in the story and can “see” everything that is going on. The voice can tell us what each and every character is doing at any time. What is a completely subjective shot? It is when the camera takes the place of one of the characters. In the case of our two people talking, if the other character is talking, she would look directly into the lens as if she were looking into the eyes of the man. In actual practice this is almost never done in narrative filmmaking, although it is used on very rare occasions.

One of the forms of example of POV are things like doggie cam. If there is a dog in the scene and the camera is placed low to the ground and moves along in a fashion resembling how a dog moves, we are seeing the scene from a dog’s point of view.

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The Fourth Wall And POV

Subjective POV is often used to represent someone observing a scene from hiding, however, it is rarely carried all the way through. For example, if the “victim” were to see the stalker and walk over to confront him, logically he would look directly into the camera. There are two problems with this. First it would break the illusion of the film. The audience would be made jarringly aware that they are watching the movie. In the theater it would be called breaking the fourth wall. This is when an actor in the play talks directly to the audience. To take it to its most extreme and ridiculous logical end, if the man were to ask the stalker a question and he agreed, we would have to nod the camera up and down.

The most frequently used type of character POV is the POV look. An example of this is when we see someone looks up, and then the next shot is a view of an airplane. It is often used as a device to cheat a location or establish a physical relationship that didn’t really exist on the set or location. For example if we want to establish that the character has a view of the city, but the location you are using doesn’t really have one, it is a simple matter to get a shot of the character looking and then cut to a long shot of the city. To take it to the next step, it would also be possible to take the actor (or even a stand-in) to another location and get an over- the-shoulder of a view of the city. This is a cheated connecting shot and only requires that the two windows (or at least what they see of them) match visually.

In their book Film Art: An Introduction, David Bordwell and Kristin Thomson call this the Kuleshov effect. This is named for Lev Kuleshov, one of the early Russian formalist filmmakers in the 1920’s. He performed an experiment in which is used the same shot of a famous Russian actor with a completely neutral look intercut (at various times) with shots of nature, some soup, a baby and, a dead woman. When asked about what emotions the actor was expressing, the audience said he was either showing tranquility, hunger, joy, or great sorrow.

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This illustrates the storytelling power of simply putting two shots together. When we show someone tilt his head up and his eyes turn toward something off-screen, then cut to a clock tower or an airplane, the audience will always make the connection that our character is looking at that tower or plane.

This demonstrates not only the usefulness of subjective POVs for storytelling and emotional subtext, but also hints at the importance of the off-screen space as part of our narrative. It also reminds us that we are almost never doing shots that will be used in isolation: ultimately shots are used in combination with other shots. This is really the essence of filmmaking: doing shots that are good on their own is important, but in the end what really counts is how the shots work when they are put together in editing.

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