A Little Warning About Masters

A genuine martial arts master will not offer a flowery preamble of gymnastic flair before a fight. He’s just going to stand there and when you are done bragging about the latest MMA class you’ve taken, and finally exhume more courage from your ego than common sense, and attack him…he’s going to punch through your ribcage and pull out your still-beating heart like an Aztec priest if only so he can show you how small your heart is before you die.

Similarly, a master filmmaker does not need twenty angles of a single event.  He might take three, four if it is important.

There is a growing trend in many filmmakers (some of them being A-list directors of some of the biggest franchises in the world—which is unfortunate because it adds the air of credibility to bad directing) to just film by barrage; that is to say, just shoot hand-held, from odd angles, in five-to-ten different directions and let the editor cobble together the scene.

Wrong.

Storyboard your shots—physically, or at the very least mentally—and shoot with precision.

Learn your angles and know the difference between your angles. Learn how to build complimentary frames by precise and escalating (or intimating) orbits of the camera.  This is best achieved by understanding your physical space (the set) and the action of the characters within that space (blocking and choreography).  Learn how objects move in three dimensions, then learn how to block your action so that you can find the best frame, and the best composition that still supplies the scene with its energy, depth/distance and mood.

For example, watch the framing of shots on directors like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, David Fincher, David Lean, Martin Scorcese, Charlie Chaplan, Stanley Kubrick—learn from the masters. For example, Steven Spielberg is awesome at master shots, so is James Cameron. Once you have your meticulously manicured master, you can just pop in with close-ups, reverses and a few punch ins and your solid.

Obviously, it must conceded that one must shoot according to the story. If that’s short lenses, long lens, on sticks or hand held…so be it.

This post is motivated by recent films and movies I’ve watched this week. For example, in The American, the camera is always still—as if perched—just like George Clooney’s character Jack is throughout the film. Also, in The American (and I’ll go into this in a later post) the film is shot almost entirely in the 1st person.  You only ever see what George Clooney sees, which adds to the film’s claustrophic, detached and arrested mood.  Other movies like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader had shots that were completely random—like, why on Earth (or Narnia) are you shooting this scene from this angle?

There is a science (and art) to learning how the camera slowly eavesdrops or invades any scene in a film.

Showing up with a camera and just shooting stuff isn’t being a director. That’s just being an untrained cameraman.

Know the difference.