How can you improve your filmmaking without actually spending any money on it?
LAVideofilmmaker offers five ways to add a lot of value to your projects without adding a single penny to your budget.
These tips won’t add any money to your budget, but they will add a lot of value to your finished product and to your filmmaking career as a whole.
Use the same lens / focal length in complementary shots
It is a generally good practice to use exactly the same focal length in shot/reverse shot pairs.
Suppose you are shooting a scene in which two actors talk face to face, and that you are going to use three setups:
1. a shot of actor A over the shoulder of actor B;
2. a shot of actor B over the shoulder of actor A;
3. a wide shot of the two actors.
Shots 1 and 2 should use exactly the same focal length. It may also be advisable to use the same focal length for Shot 3, but this is not as critical and depends on the circumstances.
The reason for the importance of using the same focal length for complementary shots is that different focal lengths have different perspectives and therefore produce different looks.
If the two complementary shots are filmed with lenses of different focal length, the looks will not match – the shot with the longer focal length will have a more blurry background and a more compressed look than the shot filmed with the wider lens. This makes the sequence look inconsistent and sloppy – something that the audience will notice right away.
The significance of this for those who use cameras that only have a single zoom lens is that the zoom lens has an infinite number of focal lengths between its maximum and minimum settings.
The ease with which you can zoom in or out to get the framing you want means that you are quite likely to use a different focal length for every shot you film.
This is sloppy and can make your work look visually inconsistent, particularly if you use larger format cameras (such as the RED camera), in which the difference between the depth of field characteristics and perspectives of different focal lengths are amplified.
It is recommended you use a good set of prime lenses, for two reasons:
a) prime lenses produce the best images, partly because they have fewer elements (less glass) than large zoom lenses;
b) it will force you to give careful thought to focal length, and it will make it very easy to achieve consistency in focal length between complementary shots, because you are either using the right lens or you are not: there is no zoom-lens sliding scale.
Using discrete lenses does make it slightly more difficult to set up shots, because you cannot correct the framing by zooming in or out: you must move either the camera or the actors. The superior results are more than worth it, however.
If you are unable to use prime lenses and have to use a zoom lens, you can still use discipline and visual consistency in your filmmaking by taking care to use the same focal length in complementary shots.
This is easy to do if the zoom lens is marked with focal lengths: decide that on this project you will only use certain focal lengths (14mm, 25mm, 50mm, 85mm, 100mm and 200mm, for example), and then stick to them. If the zoom lens does not have focal length marks, you can simply use some tape to mark the lens in discrete steps, and only use those zoom settings.
There is one important exception to the rule of using the same focal length for complementary shots. If two characters are talking and you cover the scene with complementary over-the-shoulder shots and you want to make one character look a lot more dominant than the other, you can use a wide lens (short focal length) when shooting over the shoulder of the dominant character, and a significantly longer lens when shooting over the shoulder of the other character.
As a result of the short focal length, when you film over the shoulder of the dominant character, he will dominate the frame because he will look much larger than the other character.
Conversely, when you use the long lens with the reverse over-the-shoulder shot, the character in the foreground will not dominate the other character, because their relative sizes will be similar (this is because the camera will be further away from them to achieve the same framing, thereby reducing the difference in their relative sizes in the frame).
So far I have only seen this technique used in Steven Spielberg’s films. An excellent example of this technique is in “The Terminal,” in the scene in which Tom Hanks and Stanley Tucci confer in his office (it is the scene in which Stanley Tucci offers him a sandwich at the beginning of the interview and Hanks declines it, saying that he is “stuffed”, very much to Stanley Tucci’s disappointment).
This technique only works if the two lenses have very different focal lengths: for example, 25mm for the wide lens and at least 100mm for the longer lens. If the difference is slight, there will be enough difference to make it look messy, but not enough to make one of the characters look dominant, so you lose on both counts.
Practice the trickiest shots in advance with a camcorder and your actors or stand-ins
Most projects have at least one shot that can fairly be described as technically demanding. It might be due to an unusual camera movement, stringent framing requirements, or a complex mixture of the actors and camera moving in concert.
Or perhaps you know what you want the shot to look like, but are unsure of precisely how to achieve it. To make sure you really get what you want when you shoot the project, it is worth having a quick meeting with your actors and practise the shot with a camcorder.
There is no need to have the actual dolly or tripod there – you can simply hold the camcorder with your hands. The purpose of this is to identify any difficulties that may arise on the shoot. It is always worth recording the sessions so that you can review the footage at home.
Brief the actors in advance on how you like to work
Make sure you brief your actors in advance on how you like things to work. Some like doing multiple takes – some actors can find this disconcerting, because they can become paranoid that their performance is somehow unsatisfactory.
If there is something specific about an actor’s performance that is making multiple takes necessary, obviously it is a very good idea to communicate it clearly and politely.
It is a good idea to reassure the actors that they are not doing anything wrong – the extra takes, if you can afford them, are usually worth it, because amazing things can happen once actors become truly comfortable with the scene and start to loosen up. The right approach is very much a personal matter that you must hone with experience.
Different actors peak at different times – talk to them about it and plan your shoot accordingly
Some actors deliver their absolute best performance on the first or second take, and then their performance slowly and irreversibly declines as you do more takes, no matter how much direction you give them. Other actors get better and better with each take, even after 30 takes.
This has practical implications for the way you plan your shoot. For example, if you are shooting a scene with two characters, you should start with the actor who peaks in the early takes, and then film the shot of the other character. In this way you will capture the best performance of each actor.
If they both peak at similar times obviously this is not ideal, but it is always worth asking your actors in advance about when they peak, so that you can plan accordingly.
If you are using professional actors – and you always should, regardless of budget – they will be able to tell you when they peak. Ask them before you plan the shoot: it is a simple question with an equally simple answer.
Edit the sequence in your mind while you shoot
What really separates top-notch filmmakers from everyone else is their ability to see the finished sequence in their mind before they actually shoot it.
Visualise the cut sequence first and then work backwards and start thinking about the shots individually. It is perfectly natural and indeed inevitable to think of specific shots when you first plan a scene, but always mentally insert those shots into the sequence to see if they work as a whole.
All of this means that when you are rehearsing a shot, shooting it and then reviewing it on the video monitor, never think of the shot in isolation – always consider it in the context of a fully assembled sequence. Will it cut smoothly with the shots that precede and follow it in the sequence?
If you don’t know which shots will come before and after the shots that you are filming at any one time, you have a potentially serious blind spot that can cause difficulties in the editing room later, potentially compromising your project.
If you know in advance that a particular shot’s inclusion in the sequence poses specific editing issues, make sure that you describe those issues in the shot list so that you can really direct the shot properly. This is one of the “secrets” to producing really impressive work, but it’s not really a secret, because the best filmmakers are aware of it.