How you frame the shot, where you place the camera, and what subjects you choose to show in the frame — those are the nouns, verbs, adverbs and prepositions of the language of motion pictures.
Over my years of teaching, guest lecturing, and writing about the art and science of filmmaking, one of the most common questions I’ve been asked — albeit most often after the class, for fear of embarrassment — is, “How do you know where to put the camera?”
It’s most certainly not a question to be embarrassed about. In fact, it’s one of the most important questions you can ask.
Filmmaking is a language. Every shot is a sentence in the story you’re telling. How you frame the shot, where you place the camera, and what subjects you choose to show in the frame — those are the nouns, verbs, adverbs and prepositions of the language of motion pictures. If you want the audience to understand your story, you have to create a clear visual language. Somnambulist riboflavin autodidact mnemonic filibusterer.
Confusing? Yup. Because no matter how impressive your vocabulary is, a random string of big words is meaningless. Likewise, just a bunch of cool-looking shots strung together is meaningless. You’ve got to form good, solid sentences in order to tell your story.
Over the years I’ve had directors and cinematographers suggest shots to me: “What about this? It’s pretty cool!”
“Yes,” I’ll agree. “It is a cool shot — but what does it say for the story? What does it say about the character? How does it add to the scene?”
“... It’s just cool.”
“Yeah. No thanks.”
I’ve had producers talk about “keeping it interesting and exciting!” While I wholeheartedly agree that, at times, dynamic and aggressive camerawork is needed for a given narrative, it is never the rule. The story and performances should be keeping the movie interesting. If that’s not the case, “cool” shots will never be enough to save an already doomed project.
What follows is a look at my thought process as I find the shots that best communicate the visual story I’m trying to tell. This is based on a decade as a cinematographer and another decade as a director — in addition to 40 years of study, which truly never ends. These are just my opinions, but I hope they will help you refine your grasp of visual storytelling so that you’ll be able to say with confidence where to put your camera.
The first step is understanding the story. For me, filmmaking is all about eliciting an emotional reaction from an audience as I guide them through the story. And the camera plays a crucial role in establishing an emotional connection with the viewer, whether that emotion is anger, fear, laughter, curiosity — even, at times, confusion. Where, how and why the camera is in a particular place should always serve the emotional core of the story I’m trying to tell.
Therefore, it all starts with the script. The genre dictates the camera’s role — a romantic comedy will have a different camera approach than a psychological thriller — so that’s where we start. What kind of movie is this?
The next big question is, are we going for an objective or subjective point of view? An objective point of view comes from a neutral third-party — an impartial observer who merely witnesses the action as it unfolds. I’ll lean toward an objective viewpoint if the emotional content of the scene is extremely high. The juxtaposition of a neutral observation of a murder, tragic loss or horrible atrocity can actually amplify the effect for the audience. Stepping back to witness something through the unblinking eye of the camera can, in the right context, be just as emotionally powerful as bringing the viewer right into the middle of the action. The objective point of view is generally a camera placed at a distance, in a wide shot, a profile shot, or in a generally more neutral position on the eyeline. (More on eyelines in a moment.)
A subjective point of view, on the other hand, is what I reach for most often. This gets the audience inside the emotion of one or more of the characters — really only one specific character per shot, though. I’m not talking about a literal point-of-view, where the frame is intended to actually represent exactly what the character sees, although that has its place. Rather, a subjective point of view brings the camera as close to the emotional viewpoint of a character as possible.
This is all about context, and understanding the emotions of the character whose POV you’ve chosen. In most cases this will be your protagonist, but it can shift — even within a scene — to other characters. A subjective POV allows us to visually connect with the thoughts and emotions of the character we are relating to. Is this character in love? Then we might see alternating close-ups of his eyes connecting with her eyes, or his eyes and her lips as she speaks to him. Is one character lusting after another? Then the focus of her gaze might be more on his physique, and we might see shots of his biceps or abs. The shot becomes a manifestation of our character’s desires.
Subjective points of view require getting close to the eyeline — what is also known, more technically, as the 180-degree line. When two characters are having a conversation, an imaginary line is drawn between their eyes, creating the “eyeline.” The closer the camera gets to this eyeline, the more intimate and connected the audience is to that character’s feelings. The old saying “the eyes are the windows to the soul” is an important one to remember. When you’re having an intense conversation with someone, where do you look? How do you know they’re really connecting with you? They’re looking in your eyes.
How close or far from the eyeline we are vertically plays an equally important role in the interpretation of the shot. Most of the time we’ll be on the level of our character’s eyes, as this is the most direct connection. Yet, at times, rising above or dropping below the eyeline carries substantial weight. In a heavy scene with a lot of intimidation, you might choose to shoot the entire scene below the eyeline of your character. Alternatively, if you want to accentuate vulnerability during the course of a scene, you might try the opposite, rising above the eyeline to diminish the character’s strength.
I tell young cinematographers and directors to take acting classes. This is partially to develop an idea of how to relate to actors, but it’s also about putting yourself into the mindset of a character. If you can empathize with your characters and understand how they feel in any particular moment, it can greatly inform where you place the camera and what the camera will see.
Blocking is an extremely important tool for determining where your camera will go. There’s no shortcut to the “block, light, rehearse, shoot” production paradigm. No matter how meticulously you’ve planned your shots ahead of time, when you get to the set, always block out the entire scene and watch the actors perform it — and then be prepared to change your plan when a new (and better) idea arises.
Watch the actors: where they look, where they move. Put yourself into the emotional mindset of the main character in the scene. This almost always informs where I put the camera as well as what inserts I might need that I hadn’t planned for. Camera movement can also be motivated by the characters’ actions and feelings, and where the actors naturally move during a rehearsal. While the actors are rehearsing, I’ll usually walk around them and visualize my camera positions, standing behind an actor and visualizing my over-the-shoulder shot; moving with them from one position to another to denote a dolly transition; squatting down and realizing that if I look up on this performer at this moment, it adds substantial weight to the line they’re delivering.
Geography is a very important consideration. Geography is the overall structure of the sentence in visual storytelling. Many directors and cinematographers seem to forget this, especially when shooting action. If the audience loses an understanding of where they are within the setting, that confusion is likely to distract them from the story.
Wide shots help to establish and remind us of geography, while shots like “dirty” over-the-shoulders can help to solidify the geography and remind us of the other actors’ position in the space. Most shots that establish geography are objective, but not always. Sometimes a moving shot can help to establish geography: Leading a character as they walk from one side of a space to another is a subjective method of delineating geography. Having a police lieutenant walk angrily through a detective’s pool toward our antagonist is a great opportunity to establish geography and get into the subjective emotional mind-space of that character. We don’t always need a wide establishing shot, but we do greatly benefit from a clear sense of geography, which establishes your character’s place in the world — and, as a result, the audience’s place in that world as well.
Reaction shots are key to the emotional context of a scene. Seeing how a character — particularly the protagonist — reacts to a moment helps inform the audience as to how they should interpret the scene emotionally. Steven Spielberg is a master of showing — and lingering on — character reactions even before we see what they’re reacting to. This is pure subjective filmmaking.
The focal length of the lens you choose also plays a significant role in your visual storytelling, determining the degree of distance between the audience and the character. A close-up shot with a 20mm lens is significantly different from a close-up shot with a 200mm lens. A keen understanding of focal length and relative distances between subject and lens — a topic that’s well beyond the scope of this article — is key to understanding where to put your camera.
Of course, you should also study all kinds of movies. Watch and learn from other directors and cinematographers. Even today, after more than 30 years in this business, I’ll often watch and re-watch scenes to break down the coverage. Understanding the choices of others helps me continue to refine my own approach to coverage and blocking. It can be especially helpful to study something you don’t like, so you can discover exactly what it is that doesn’t work for you. And by all means, experiment. In this day and age, when everyone has a camera on their phone, there’s no excuse for not shooting and learning practically. Take an object and shoot it from as many points of view and perspectives as you can imagine. See what you learn from each and note how it might influence your decisions later.
A final parting thought: I have found that there is always at least one moment on each project when I get lost. The schedule changes, some unforeseen problem requires a complete change in plans, or time and resources don’t permit us to execute what we had intended. What do we do next? Where should the camera go? These moments, with the whole crew staring at you and waiting on your decision, can be terrifying and debilitating.
The trick is to make a decision. Any decision. Arbitrary as it may be, just put the camera somewhere. You might realize that it was the wrong decision entirely, but by the time you realize that, you’ll know what the right choice is and you can adjust accordingly. It’s substantially better to say “Sorry, I was wrong, let’s move over here instead” than it is to be a deer in headlights, with everyone waiting on you as time and the budget tick away.
Remember to always keep the story in mind. Concentrate on the emotional core of the scene — in the context of the emotional core of the whole story — and let that inform how and where you put your camera.