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Cinematography Tips & Tricks For The Aspiring Filmmaker

18 February 2014 No Comment

Patrick Stewart (not that one) is one of the directors of the documentary film “It’s Better To Jump” shot on location in Palestine.

In his career he has served as Director of Photography to award winning directors Martin Scorcese, Peter Bogdonovich and Clint Eastwood. He currently works on the hit series “The League” for FX.

Here are a few tips to think about when preparing to shoot a low budget documentary film on the fly… Make sure you try to follow each of these tips as they will help the production value of your project, and the ease and cost of the whole production process in the long run

  • Location Scout: Know Your Location! Scout the location beforehand, preferably at the time of day that you plan to shoot. In doing so you can find out if there are any activities by others using the same area that might interfere with shooting. Check also that there is no ambient or background sound that can interfere with the shooting e.g.: air-conditioning noise, traffic sounds, running water, etc.
  • Background Choice: Frame Your Shot! Try to make sure that the background in the shot(s) has some connection with the subject or subject matter or theme.
  • Shooting Schedules: Work with the Elements Whether shooting either indoors or outdoors, schedule the interview so that the sun or ambient light situation will enhance the subject’s light and or light in the background within the shot(s).
  • Lighting Angle: Shadowing The Subject What’s most important as far as lighting is concerned is not necessarily the type of light e.g. sun, floor lamp, fluorescent lights on the ceiling, but the angle of the light on your subject. Picture yourself with a camera standing on the face of a clock placed flat on the ground where the number “6” is. You point the camera across the front of the face towards the number “12”. You seat your subject directly in the middle where the hands of the clock rotate. The angle of the light on their face should be coming either from the number “4” if they are looking camera left to camera right or from the number “8” if they are looking camera right to camera left. Try not to shoot in a situation where the light is coming from directly overhead. This will create a “raccoon” look of shadow on their eyes.

  • Distance to Camera: Pulling Focus Like A Pro The optimal distance of the camera to the subject all depends on: the situation or setting available in which to shoot, and the camera and lens you are using. The subject and the background tend to look better when you zoom in on the lens at least 1/3rd of the way or more. i.e. if your using a 24mm-70mm lens, you should be setting up your shot with your subject so that the lens is zoomed in at least to 50mm. If possible, try to place your subject 4 feet or further from the camera. Finally, adjust your f-stop to the smallest number possible; 2.8 or smaller. This will help put the background more out of focus, and thereby accentuate the focus that is on your subject.
  • Mastering The Eye Line: Set Your Subjects Apart If you are shooting a project that requires a lot of interviews, try to make sure you have a balance of subjects looking to the left and the right side of camera. If there is one main subject interviewee and all the rest of the interviewees are subordinate and you want to visually set them apart, place the main subject looking one direction, and all the rest looking the opposite direction.
  • Framing Your Subject: The Interviewer Holds The Power Place the interviewer next to the camera on the right or left side. This will keep the “eye line” of the interviewee closer to the angle of the lens from the audience’s perspective. Frame your main shot with the line of the chest at the bottom of the frame (aka. Chest Up or Medium Shot). Always try to put the their eyes around 2/3rds of the height of the frame. Make sure there is some space between the top of their head and the top of the frame (Headroom).
  • Use a B Camera If Possible: Adding a second or “B” camera for the interview will enable you to edit the interview without having to cut to B roll or other interview footage. Make sure the subject is looking the same direction as the “A” camera, either both to camera right or both camera left. (Never put the interviewer in between A and B camera.) Adjust the framing so that B camera has a much tighter or closer shot than A camera.
  • NEVER Forget Your Release Forms: Always get a signed release with clear contact information and spellings of names. Without this, you will not be able to legally use the footage.
  • Take the Time to do Production Stills: Take digital photographs of your key interviewees and locations as if they were in the film for publicity use.  They might be a bother, but they’ll always come in handy. Your distribution company will want high res jpegs and HD screen grabs do not always suffice.
  • Set Up Time: Factor It Into Your Schedule! Give yourself more than enough time to load in all the equipment and set it all up properly. Make a checklist if need be: Camera, Lights/Grip Gear, Sound, etc. It usually takes longer than expected to organize each interview. Rushing to finish setting up only leads to expensive technical mistakes.

If you want to see Patrick’s advice in practice, It’s Better to Jump can be found on Hulu, Amazon and DVD from Cinema Libre Studio.

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