Cinematography refers to the camera work part of the production process. In other words, how is the camera used and what are the storytelling elements that can be controlled through a thorough understanding of how to use the filmmaking camera.
Coverage is a cinematography term that refers to shooting a scene from a variety of angles and distances so you will have the raw material necessary to edit the scene together into an interesting visual and emotional experience for the audience. Each of the shots, or individual angles, requires a different setup.
A motion picture is made up of many shots. Each shot should be from the best angle to tell this part of the story the way you want your audience to experience it. Usually this means the angle that shows the actors and setting most clearly, but sometimes you may want to fool the audience by not showing what's happening.
Every time the camera is moved for a new setup you need to ask yourself if this is the best camera angle for telling this part of the story. The camera angles are an important part of what makes a film work. In real life we can only see our world from one angle unless we get up and move to a different spot. In creating a movie you can instantly jump to whatever angle best tells this moment of the story.
It is important to understand the difference between scene, shot and sequence.
A scene is the exact location where the action is happening. A shot is a single continuous angle of view that probably only shows one part of the action at the scene. A sequence is a complete "chapter" of the story. When the shot is filmed that is a take. If the take isn't good then there will need to be another take, also known as a re-take.
This example may explain it better. A sequence starts with a teen girl arguing with her mother in the kitchen. The teen then goes to the living room where she has a heated discussion with her father. Finally she goes to her bedroom where she calls her boyfriend to tell him she has decided to run away from home. This sequence tells a complete part of the story but consists of three scenes, and no doubt, several shots in each scene. And unless the actors were amazingly good there would be a number of takes of each shot.
A sequence typically consists of several scenes, and a scene typically consists of several shots. However any combination is possible. It is possible for a sequence to have just one scene, and even for more than one sequence to happen in a single scene. In Alfred Hitchcock's experimental move Rope the entire movie was filmed in a single shot. Several movies have famous sequences where a single moving shot moves through several scenes as in the restaurant sequence in Goodfellas and the opening sequence in Touch of Evil. In the movie Stranger Than Paradise the sequences are single scenes, and every scene is filmed as a single shot.
Use whatever combination tells the story best.
Type of camera angles
A shot can be from three general camera angles:
The objective angle is the most common in movies. It is the "fly on the wall" viewpoint where the audience sees what is happening but feels safely removed from the events as though they were there, but invisible. The actors must never look directly at the camera lens for that will destroy the illusion of the objective angle and require a re-take.
The subjective angle puts the audience in the scene along with the actors as though they were other participants in the action. When the camera rides the roller-coaster or flies in the cockpit of the airplane as is banks through a narrow canyon the audience will experience the subjective angle of view. The subjective angle is often used to briefly shock or disorient the audience. When an actor steps out of character to deliver an explanatory speech to the audience this is subjective angle.
The point-of-view angle puts the audience into the head of one of the actors so the audience sees what the character sees. This is often used to get the audience to sense the fear felt by the hero as s/he enters a dangerous situation. In a point-of-view angle the others actors may look directly into the camera to help create the audience's illusion that the audience is now living inside the character.
In the most dramatic moments of a movie it creates a powerful effect to switch between these various angles. For example in The Silence of the Lambs when FBI agent Starling searches the basement of Buffalo Bill's house the shots are mostly from the objective angle but at the most frightening moments switches to point-of-view so we sense agent Starling's fear as she enters the dark rooms. The filmmakers did a surprisingly effective bit of cinematography in this scene by also using the point-of-view of the villain looking through his night vision goggles as he follows the stumbling FBI agent in total darkness. The combination makes for one of the most frightening sequences ever filmed.
The coverage shots
The Establishing Shot - is a very wide angle shot that shows the locale of the scene. This familiarizes the audience with where the scene is taking place. Imagine a distant shot of a mountain castle during a lightning storm at the beginning of an old horror film. The establishing shot may not include any actors. Where possible the establishing shot should be from a high angle to give a "bird's eye" overview to help the audience understand where the subsequent action will take place.
The Master Shot - is wide enough to include all the actors. If you are shooting on film and have a very small budget this may be the only shot you can get. Stranger Than Paradise consists of nothing but master shots.
Wide Shot - moves in closer but still includes most of the body of the actors. This may be a single grouping of a few of the actors in a larger crowd scene when you want to concentrate on a single conversation.
Two-Shot - shows two characters related to one another usually from the waist up. A Three Shot is three actors, a Four-Shot is four actors and so on.
Over-the-Shoulder - is a medium or close up shot including 2 actors taken over the shoulder of one actor and showing the face of the other actor.
The two-shot is probably the most common shot in movies. The usual technique is to cut back and forth between two over-the-shoulder shots of the actors like the image above. However, a conversation between two characters can quickly become boring if the there isn't a variety of angles used.
The worst way to film a two-shot is to line up the actors facing each other at a normal conversational distance as in the following image.
The camera is too far away and the profile of the actors doesn't show their expressions very well. A better solution is to move the actors closer than they would normally stand and turn their bodies to face the camera slightly. Also, have them turn their heads slightly toward the camera and look at the ear of the other actor that is closest to the camera rather than the other actor's eyes.
This adjusting of positioning to give a better angle for the camera is called "cheating". You can see how the following image looks a little better than the previous image when we "cheat" the actors toward the camera.
We are able to get closer and see their faces better, but it still looks natural to the camera. Another common "cheat" is to have both actors face the camera while they talk. Few people spend a lot of time facing like this in real conversations but it works well in a movie. Any view of an actor that is face-on or in profile is not as good as having the face in a three-quarter view like the actors in the following image.
Compare this third image to the first one to see how much closer we are to the actors and how we can now see their faces very clearly. Placing actors within the frame to best tell the story is part of the art of blocking and staging.
As you watch movies be aware of the various ways that actors are positioned and angled to keep their conversations interesting.
Medium Shot - is a shot showing an actor from the waist up.
Close-up - is a shot from the actors neck up. Sometime a close-up is a little looser and includes the actor's shoulders.
Any image involving a single actor, or any moving object, needs to have some visual space in front of it within the frame like the following, to give a sense of dynamics.
Putting the actor in the middle of the frame looks static and feels like a snapshot.
Having more space behind the actor than in front feels like the actor has left, or is leaving, the scene, and just feels uncomfortable.
Even when the actor is facing away from the camera, having more space in front still gives the feeling that the actor is in the frame.
More space behind the actor again feels like they are out of the scene.
Extreme Close-up - is so close that only part of the actor's face is visible. This angle can be used very powerfully at highly emotional moments. Save the extreme close-up for such emotional moments.
Insert - is a shot of something other than the actors that will be edited into the scene, for example: a ticking clock. Insert shots can save the editing of a scene if you later discover you don't have the right angle to transition between to shots. Put the insert in between and the transition looks smooth.
P.O.V. - means Point Of View. This shot is intended to show the audience what one of the characters is seeing, i.e. from the character's point of view. Point-of-view is discussed in the previous section.
Hollywood Camera Work is a master course in film blocking and staging. If you've never heard of blocking and staging that may explain why you find your attempts at filmmaking look amateurish next to what you see on the screen at the multiplex. Along with bad sound, lighting, and acting, poor placement of the actors and camera are the biggest mistakes for beginning filmmakers. It's the difference between films that look like bad home movies and films that tell an exciting, emotional story.
Per Holmes, the creator of the Hollywood Camera Work DVDs, was a both a successful music producer and music video director. He was puzzled that there wasn't a comprehensive reference on blocking and staging techniques and spent five years creating one of his own. Luckily he decided to share his work and Hollywood Camera Work is the result of that effort. (Note that the educational discount previously offered from this site is no longer available. Check with the publisher to find out about product availability.)
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