Week Two:  Film Language & The Camera

Here is today’s PowerPoint summarizing the terms used to describe different shots in a film.  The “grammar” of film combines these varied shots like sentences in order to tell a story or create an emotional effect.  Below, examples, and more on the terms that describe Camera Movement.

Below is a nicely done scene from the movie 3 O’clock High (1987), by Phil Joanou.  It’s got flawless match cutting, good use of low angle closeups on the bully Buddy Revell, and see how the big long shot is reserved for the end of the scene, rather than as an opening establishing shot.

The scene below is one of the many tense moments from the original Alien (1979).  Director Ridley Scott and his team opted for a claustrophobic, haunted-house kind of atmosphere with the labrynthian spaceship filled with dark corners, tight spaces, exposed wires and ductwork – all to accentuate the panic that the crew feels when an unknown presence stalks their ship.  As you will see, the use of closeups is key to building the tension: it reveals the emotions of the characters in detail, but also means we see very little of the surroundings and are frustrated in our attempts to “find” the alien.  Using closeups also means cutting more often, and that enables Scott to build a rhythm – a time-honoured technique in scary scenes!

Watch how the following scene begins with a slow disclosure, as Parker slams the gun down on the table.

Here is an excellent video-essay looking at the “frame within a frame” compositions of In the Mood for Love (2000), the beautiful, atmospheric, and melancholy film by Hong Kong’s Wong Kar Wei.

By contrast, watch this opening scene from the Hollywood comedy The Mask (1994), wherein two nerdy bank employees are wowed by the appearance of the gorgeous Cameron Diaz.  In true American style, the moviemakers pull out all the stops – it’s what film studies intellectuals would call “overdetermined!”  To make sure we understand she’s attractive, and the two guys are smitten, the film combines over-the-top acting, suggestive costume, slow motion, music, and plenty of camera movement – including a complex zoom out/dolly in technique first used by Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo (1958).

Camera movements include handheld – where the camera is carried by the operator, and therefore has a sense of motion (sometimes shakey, on purpose); pans and tilts, which are side to side or up and down movements from a fixed position; dolly and crane shots where the camera can move freely through space.  As the video below points out, there are many variations of these movements which can be used in films for many different effects.  And today, there are many technological innovations which allow cinematographers to accomplish nearly any movement they can imagine.

Here’s another Ultimate Guide episode, this one showing behind the scenes footage of all the high and low-tech gear used to create camera movements.

The Coen Brothers are America’s most successful and prolific “indie” filmmakers and throughout their long career their films have used zany and extremely clever visuals.  This video shows their homemade camera platform, the “shakeycam” and some of the outrageous camera moves it has created.

What’s the difference between dollying in and zooming in?  The excellent video below explains, with many examples to show how filmmakers use these very different ways of getting closer to their subjects.

Sometimes a shaky camera makes a scene feel more realistic – as though it were real life, being filmed spontaneously by a documentary camera.  And clearly, a fast pace of cutting which combines many tiny fragments might also contribute to the excitement of a scene.  However, many people think filmmakers have gone too far.  This video delves into detail on the subject of shaky cam in action films.

By contrast, here is a fight scene from Enter the Dragon (1973), where kung fu star Bruce Lee insisted on a style that kept cutting to a minimum, and used shots that showed his whole body, so that he could do the fight movements for real.

Famed musical star Fred Astaire, like Bruce Lee, insisted on the integrity of his dance choreographies, and wanted them shot as simply as possible.  Here in only a few wide shots joined with simple cuts, Astaire shows off his incredible dexterity and talent.  From 1951’s Royal Wedding.

The Steadicam, invented by Garrett Brown, was first used in 1976 to do an impressive moving establishing shot in Bound for Glory, and in Rocky, for the now-iconic run following Sylvester Stallone up the stairs of the Philadelphia Art Museum.  In this interview Brown talks about working with Stanley Kubrick on The Shining, and how Kubrick pushed him hard – and helped make the Steadicam an indispensible tool for filmmaking.