What you can learn from different camera work styles
When it comes to how to use your camera, it can be as important to a director as the story itself. In many cases what you do with the camera is why people bought the movie ticket.
While there are hundreds of camera shots and positions to compare I thought the best way for us to have a conversation was to compare two contrasting camera styles and two contrasting director’s whose styles typically reflect those shots in their films.
Representing the moving camera is Michael Bay.
It would be really hard to find a director with a more active camera than MB. His films are well known for action and hyperactive camera shots and angles. His work, will make the case for the moving camera and why this is the better use a camera than one the sticks.
Representing the static camera is Wes Anderson.
Anderson has probably the most recognized film style of any director in this modern era. The biggest feature of most of his camera shots are completely symmetrical compositions and sets which require a static shot to display them. Anderson’s minimal camera movement hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the most well known and respected filmmakers in our time.
Before we dive in, I just want to say that this article does not mean to take anything away from these director’s cinematographers whose job it is to make sure that these directors get the shots they want. I mainly want to focus the conversation on camera use in terms of style and while both directors have used different DPs, their styles have remained constant in their films.
Let’s also keep in mind that which ever style you prefer you may have to work with directors who like either or both camera styles. You need to learn how to describe both with images. We will talk more about that in a bit.
The moving camera. Along for the ride.
The best way to describe what moving the camera does for your shots is to “take the audience along for the ride.” The viewer is more than just observing the action, they are an active participant. They follow the same action of the characters as they duck, crouch, jump, run and drive their way through the melee of what’s happening around them.
No director is better known for this than Michael Bay. Bay uses every opportunity to higheten the anticipation and emotion of his characters by moving the camera or framing his characters in extreme angles.
Take this shot for example from Bad Boys (2003)
An example of a shot like this creates an epic scale. The characters exist in a huge world and they are deciding in that moment to meet the challenge, most like coming to the end of act 2 in the story.
Bay himself would refer to this shot as dynamic. He wants to create as many dynamic shots in his films as he can because that creates excitement and spectacle.
In terms of cinema language, he creates depth and scale. His characters are center of the shot while being surrounded by all sorts of objects, some large, some small but all in view from a long telephoto lens, spinning around the object in the background in slow motion. And what doesn’t look cool in slow motion?
Bay repeats this shot again while following an object or a character being dropped from high altitude down to the ground. The object is center frame, and spinning while the camera is spinning in the opposite direction with the ground filled with buildings, vehicles and people rotating with the camera as it speeds closer on the way down.
Bay also likes to be ahead of the action with the characters coming towards the camera. He uses the same telephoto lens with multiple things moving in the background and all in slow motion.
While these techniques are fun and exciting to watch they can be their own worst enemy. They can be easily overdone and used when there are moments in the story that require a more subtle approach.
This is one of Bay’s biggest criticisms. He doesn’t know when to let up.
We are given shot after shot of this kind of “dynamic” action to the point ad nauseum.
Eventually the viewer becomes numb to action when it’s overdone and if that’s all you offer then disinterest soon follows.
Another thing to consider when using the moving camera is the degree of technical difficulty and expense. Cameras are among the most expensive pieces of equipment on a film set and moving them around isn’t easy or cheap.
A huge crane shot or long steadycam shot could take many hours to plan out.
What is the big take away for story artists?
In describing these kind of moving complex shots in a storyboard image you will need many panels to correctly get your ideas across. You also need rock solid perspective. Nothing hurts and idea more than poor presentation or crappy perspective.
Perspective is a technical skill that is actually easy to learn with the right tools. If you have to tackle a dynamic action scene with moving cameras be sure you have the right perspective knowledge to create winning panels.
You will also want to keep in mind how these shots as storyboards will affect the production costs. Just because you can imagine it and draw it does not mean it’s the right choice for the production.
Always pitch these ideas to the director or producer as you create them so you don’t end up doing more work than you have to and you earn a grumpy director as a result. Keep your client happy by showing them your work often.
Now let’s talk about a different camera style you also need to master.
The static camera. A call to the past.
From the earliest days of film, a static camera has been the foundation of cinematography. People had to find ways to make what was happening in front of the camera interesting enough to keep viewer’s attention. Techniques improved and visual stories became more compelling.
Having a camera be completely motionless without at least panning or a dolly is almost non existent in cinema today but there are some directors who take full advantage of the camera’s minimal movement.
One such director is Wes Anderson.
Wes Anderson’s films are unique and charming. They carry a great deal of humor and comedic spirit with them although they are more than just “comedies.”
The artistic scaffolding of Anderson’s films is symmetry.
Almost like a calling card, Anderson will compose a scene where the camera is perfectly still and all action is happening in front of it. The set and/or the background is a collection of objects that are perfectly symmetrical with one another. Even the characters copy this symmetry at times. It’s like looking at a painting or a well composed photograph.
The camera does move in a Wes Anderson movie, but he uses a minimalist approach to his setup and as a result we remember most the strong static compositions.
A static camera allows you to compose things in the frame, placing objects and characters in specific ways to control the image. It’s closer to painting than it is when the camera is moving because usually nothing moves within the frame unless you want it to.
You can focus on intimate details of an object or a character. Rarely do you ever see close ups or conversions shot with a moving camera.
Creating strong compositions like this is a must for a story artist. There is the concept of “visual balance” which Anderson is a master of. You need to compose an image with a balance of big objects versus small objects and create a pleasing arrangement of shapes.
It’s not just putting an object in the middle of the frame. You can also compose a “frame within a frame” to create strong visual interest.
This is a difficult skill to master as a visual storyteller, this is why Wes Anderson is a great film maker to study based on his compositions alone.
The lack of camera movement itself implies for the story to slow down, take a breath and gives space for exposition.
No one exploits this to a higher degree than Wes Anderson.
He composes his shots with meticulous detail and everything within his shot has some aesthetic significance. This is all accented by scoring many of these scenes with selections of his musical tastes.
The value of that significance is what many of his critics cite as “overdoing it” and being “pretentious.” They ask if all those details actually mean anything or if it’s just a result of the director’s own self indulgence.
That’s the thing with controlling a high amount of detail in your shot, when it works, people think you are a genius. When it doesn’t work, it feels self indulgent.
Take these examples of his work:
While Anderson does also uses a great deal of tracking shots (a camera on a dolly following a character through a scene) however, many of the most important moments in his films happen in front of a static shot.
The take away here for the story artist is to learn to create strong compositions with balance and visual interest. Your skills need to be so tight that at any given moment you can create strong dynamic shots with depth or equally strong static compositions that will hold the viewer’s interest.
The idea is to be able to create both camera styles as storyboards and have the range so that you can jump on any project. Show your directors and clients you can handle any visual challenge and you will constantly be in demand as an artist.
Remember that all of this takes constant practice and studying the work of others. Keep those digital pencils sharp and always be learning.
Let us know what you think about camera styles in the comments below.</´>
Story never ends!
PS: If you are interested in learning more about action storyboards and good composition, check out our course with Tim Burgard here.