I love filmmaking – everything from writing the script and coming up with a shot list to decorating the set and shooting the scenes. Cinematography is just one of the many steps needed to get my ideas off the written page and onto the screen where it belongs. In this post I’ll breakdown the cinematography of my latest short film, UNSCHEDULED VISIT, and why I made the choices I did when it came to shooting this story.
Before I breakdown the film, I’ve included it here just in case you haven’t watched it yet. The breakdown will be written below the video.
The Cinematography and Subtext
You might have noticed two very distinct shooting styles, or shots, during the film. If you never really noticed then I did my job as a cinematographer and editor. For the average viewer who are not filmmakers looking for such things, the camera work and the editing should be completely transparent unless the filmmaker wants the viewer to notice.
Subtext is how I make you feel or think outside of what the characters are saying or doing. Think of subtext like this: If the text is what you see on the page, subtext is like reading between the lines – the invisible language, thoughts and feelings that exist in the context of the scene or story, but are never actually spoken. As a director I used blocking and camera position and/or movement to relay the subtext.
One of things I did was lock the camera down on a tripod for some of the shots to ensure there was no camera movement. This is apparently frowned upon by many modern filmmakers. It seems that constant camera movement, however subtle, is the new normal and beginning filmmakers are urged to take their camera off the tripod or else the footage will be dull and boring. I do not believe this to be true because I’m a firm believer in motivated camera movement.
Don’t move the camera simply because you’re supposed to move the camera. That to me is boring, and sometimes confusing if the movement doesn’t fit the scene. If you’re going to move the camera, do it with purpose. If your scene has to have camera movement to keep it from being dull, put the camera down and write a stronger scene. For UNSCHEDULED VISIT I had a specific reason when I did, and when I did not, move the camera, and it breaks down like this:
The brief establishing shot that leads us into the scene is a right-to-left pan to introduce us to Doctor Tyler and his patient, Kendra. On the surface it’s just a simple pan, no big deal, but beneath the surface, the direction of the lateral movement is adding subtext that is outside what we see and hear.
The opening music is upbeat, the character’s actions and dialog tells us that the doctor is a caring and friendly man, but the right-to-left lateral movement hits a subliminal chord that tells us something is going to change… and not for the better. What that change is we do not know, we’re only a few seconds into the film, but deep down we just know something is going to happen. Why is that?
This is because in North America and in many other countries we read from the left of the page to right, that is “normal” for us, so anything that moves right-to-left seems slightly off. Something in the back of our subconscious mind is telling us that something is not quite right when the lateral movement is right-to-left.
The scene itself is casual and friendly, and when the doctor finishes up and escorts Kendra out of the office the camera performs a brief right-to-left pan again as it follows them to the door, further reinforcing the feeling that something is not quite right. Then, while the doctor is standing in the doorway, Scott appears. Before he even has a chance to look at the doctor we just know something is wrong. There was nothing in the previous scene to suggest anything was amiss, but… we just know something is wrong.
The camera pans left-to-right to bring us back to where we started at the desk (there’s no way around that) but the look Scott gives the doctor tells us that something is about to happen, and that quick but intense look negates the slight left-to-right pan needed to bring us back to the doctor’s desk.
Now we are waiting to see what happens, and that feeling of expectancy was the subtext that was delivered through the use of deliberate camera movements.
The Subtext of Tripod vs. Handheld Shots
From there I interchanged between tripod and handheld shots, but there was a specific reason for when I used one or the other.
The doctor and Scott are rarely seen on the screen together, and I’m probably breaking a cardinal rule by not doing over-the-shoulder shots to show both actors at the same time. I did however use one wide shot of them together, but I picked a very specific angle and piece of dialog for that lone two-shot.
Here’s how the tripod vs. handheld shots tickles our subconscious with subtext:
All the shots of the doctor are locked down on a tripod. His shots are steady because his character is rock solid – a pillar of the community and a well-liked doctor as witnessed by his interaction with Kendra. Scott’s large and intimidating stature was evident when he walked by the doctor. Shooting the two-shot on a tripod with Scott closer to the camera drives home the point that he’s a big man, but the subtext delivered tells a different story – the steady tripod shot tells us that despite their difference in size, the doctor is still rock solid and not intimidated by the bigger man.
The shots of Scott however are all handheld. The subtle movements of the camera suggest that unlike the doctor, he is in turmoil. He’s on shaky ground with his wife, with the good doctor, and with what has happened to him.
As the story progresses the shots I used for them are reversed.
When Scott finally comes to terms with what has happened to him I used a tripod instead of handheld. The subtext of the tripod shot suggests that only when his mind is calm can he deliver his final message and cross over. And because of his new state of mind he can leave behind the pregnancy test. On the surface it looks like the pregnancy test is left behind just to set up the next scene, but it goes much deeper than that. The subtext of that action is Scott telling the doctor that he knows just how much he has lost. This coming-to-terms scene is reinforced through the use of a steady tripod shot.
But as Scott starts to disappear in front of the doctor’s eyes, the doctor’s reality is suddenly thrown into turmoil – and this is reinforced by switching to handheld shots of the doctor for the remainder his scenes.
More Subtext through Composition
Another “rule” I purposefully broke was not having the doctor and Scott framed exactly the same size. Scott is always just slightly bigger to emphasize his turmoil. But, when the doctor’s reality is thrust into turmoil he is much larger on the screen, larger than even Scott was to place a little extra emphasis on his earth-shaking new reality.
Meaghan’s scenes are steady tripod shots despite the fact that she too is in turmoil. This seems counter-productive but the steady shots add a subtext to her scenes – she has had some time to absorb the bad news, and her friend Jess is there to comfort her. That comfort equates to being calmer, so the camera is locked down and steady.
Last but not least is Nurse Delores. At first it makes sense that her shots should be handheld because Scott is in the frame with her, and she just witnessed the doctor talking to himself – we later learn that she can’t see Scott because he is a ghost who is only visible to the doctor – but the more I dissected that scene, the more I realized that she is confused but not necessarily in turmoil. So other than a slight tilt to ensure she is composed correctly when she enters the frame, the shots of her are fairly steady.
Wrapping it up
Motivated camera movement adds a whole new dimension to the story because it creates subtext. Most of what I wrote about you’ve probably never even noticed when you first watched the film – you weren’t supposed to – but now that you know what subtext and motivated camera movement is, watch the video again and you just might see the film in a whole new light.
Do you agree with my shooting style for this film?
Is there something you would have done differently?
Post your comments below and let me know.