Beyond writing the script, working on creative, and directing talent, another key responsibility of the director is to direct the camera. This includes where to place the camera, making decisions about camera movement, and thinking about your shots strategically. The importance of directing the camera is as paramount as working with the actors, as it’s the other half of the coin of what the audience sees on screen.
Before the shoot starts, you’re going to want to do as much prep work as possible. A lot of the time, directors will work with the Director of Photography to determine how they want to shoot a scene. They will use storyboards and shot lists to outline the specifics of how the scene will be shot, where the actors will be, and what the lighting set-up looks like. These tools serve as a strong framework and guide for your shoot before and during your time on set. For a first time director, having an experienced cinematographer has an excellent chance of elevating the quality of your film. You may not definitively reach mind-blowing achievements in the performing arts, but you will certainly achieve the visuals of your story to a greater extent than otherwise possible, and you’ll learn the best practices from a professional. A prime example of this in history would be in the case of Citizen Kane (1941), where first time director Orson Welles was fortunate enough to work with seasoned and innovative cinematographer, Gregg Toland, whom Welles credits for the success of the film. Toland’s experience and willingness to be creative allowed him to support the self-admittedly, ignorantly-motivated creative requests of Welles, resulting in what was considered at the time, and by many still today, to be the greatest film ever made. The unconventional wish list of camera angles throughout the motion picture, such as a low angle which required them to excavate a hole in the floor to allow accessibility, led to the formulation of a new book of rules for what was possible.
One key principle they will teach you at every film school is to “motivate your camera.” What that means is that the placement of the camera, or having a shot with a moving camera, needs to be intentional and serve the story in some capacity. Camera moves can often make an otherwise uninteresting shot more appealing and attention grabbing to an audience, but professional directors use this technique to its fullest ability, and not just to energize their films, by ensuring that the aesthetic benefit is also justified by some element tying directly back to the story or a character within. If you decide to push into a close-up of an actor on a dolly, there should be a motivated reason to do so. Is it to create more drama at that moment? Is there something the character is doing that you want to draw attention to? Each shot should be thought out in advance to better serve the story and vision. This is something a film director might find themselves discussing with their cinematographer.
The key to making good camera choices is to consider what you want to focus on. Beyond using certain techniques such as rack focus, shallow or deep depth of field, or others, it is important to consider what is most important to the viewer. What do you want to draw their attention to? Is a character, an object, a location? When making these decisions, think about the messaging, themes, and style you are looking to convey.
After all the time you’ve spent preparing and making pre-production creative decisions, it’s time to apply it on set. You will collaborate with your Director of Photography and their camera team to make sure the vision is executed on. You will be able to essentially “direct” the camera just like an actor. Be incredibly clear on where you want the camera placed and explain to the actors how you want them to interact with it.
Congratulations! You have successfully “directed the camera” on set. At 7 Wonders, we understand the innate challenges and victories that come with working with camera. We work collaboratively with our in house video production specialists to effectively use camera to bring your vision to life.
For more on directing camera and cinematography fundamentals, check out: