Welcome back to Tstops. In this instalment I want to bring about a new section theme: Camera Work 101. I think sometimes we take it for granted that a person learning (myself included) just “knows” a very simple basic thing. Sometimes I wish someone had just told me about certain aspects of cinematography when I was starting out. Often a lot of talk is thrown around for Lighting, Composition, Lens choice, Exposure, and color… But one thing thats far more subtle, but contributes a lot to a shots look, is camera height.
Camera height does a couple things, it controls lens distortion and it controls foreground and background composition.
For example, on a long lens, where facial distortion is at a minimum, you can afford to use camera height to select where the horizon falls in the background. Now this may seem a trivial element, but it can have big implications if used thoughtfully.
Another example, On a wider lens, using pan and tilt to center the lens on the background, you accomplish your proper head room in the frame using the camera height. When you do this, you don’t somehow feel the width of the lens, simply that something is “special”. This is a Technique Roger Deakins uses on a regular basis. He tends to shoot with slightly wide angle lenses for some medium closeup shots, but his use of composition, and camera height, corrects for the distortion and the lens.
A good example of the use of camera height and its effect on framing (inspired by a blocking study done by filmmaker John Hudson) is the hunting scene from No Country for Old Men, where the main character Llewelyn Moss stumbles upon $2,000,000 of apparent drug money in a briefcase. The first shot, where he is unaware of the impeding danger, Deakins uses the large sky, a relatively wide lens, and creates a feeling of expansiveness and solitude, ie safety.
As the scene progresses, the camera work shifts a bit, as the lenses start to get longer, the horizon begins to shift higher into the frame, showing more and more of the terrain. Grounding the character in reality, and making the desert seem smaller, or rather… more mysterious.
Once Llewelyn realized the amount of danger he is in, the horizon is nearly invisible, giving the sense that he can’t “see” the bad guys coming any longer. Remember, on screen, the audience only sees what you show them. If you obscure the background, it adds a sense of mystery, because the audience is denied the special ability in film to see the bad guys before the character does.
In general, for classic hollywood coverage, the camera height, by center of lens for a portrait shot should be somewhere around the actors lip level. For women, its not a bad idea to be level with the eyes or even slightly above. In combination with with a longer lens, somewhere in the 50-100mm range (65 being my favorite), its very flattering to faces.
Much like in the Roger Deakins example i just showed, the camera height can have quite an effect on the psychology of the shot. However, when you start to reach levels outside the normal range of heigh, be mindful of eyelines. The only time you can somewhat forgo an eyeline is with very extreme cases of low angle, or high angle shots.
Most filmmakers know what the visual language the extreme high angle and low angle shot say, but I will briefly discuss them. The high angle shot is often used to make a character seem small, powerless and weak.
The opposite is true, when you need to assert a sense of power to a character. I mean, quite frankly, if you have a hero…. You shoot him low angle, hence “Hero Shot”.
I think the point has been made. Its a simple technique that works. Its part of the basic language of cinema that audiences are accustomed to, and they know what it means when they see it.
Now, at any point once the basics have been mastered, you have room to experiment and be creative with how you use the language to tell the story. Not all high angle shots indicate weakness. Sometimes its to help show elements of the environment. For example, this is from a film I worked on called “Pepper and Paul“. The high angle shots are there to give a sense of the two characters contrasting lives, not necessarily that either is in a position of weakness.
Learning how and when to break the basic rules is the fun part of the job of a cinematographer. Hopefully this brief overview gave you some new ideas. Thank you for reading!
Coming up: Exposure and why we are all doing it so wrong… but so right……