When you're making a film the most basic thing you should know is where to put the camera.
But there is no 'perfect' place to put the camera. The choice is entirely up to the director and cameraman.
I was 'inspired' to talk about this today because I just watched some crappy TV movie who's film-maker randomly plucked camera positions out of a lucky-bag!
Don't ask me to name the film because I can't remember what it was called (or even who was in it). It was a TV movie but that doesn't excuse the laughably incompetent camerawork and framing it featured.
Anyway, back to the topic of camera placement.
If you are a multi-millionaire film-maker who loves showering money on his productions then you probably get lots and lots of coverage. You probably film with dozens of camera's running simultaneously from every conceivable angle. And when it comes to the edit and you notice that you are missing something, you just go back and film extra stuff.
Good luck to ya!
If, on the other hand, you are dirt poor then you may have limited access to a single camera and a limited supply of camera batteries and stock. Welcome to the world of the independent film-maker.
Coverage to you is getting just enough shots to make the scene 'read'.
Sometimes you are limited to a so-called wide mastershot where you let the entire scene play out and just film everything as is.
If this sounds pathetic and sad then you are wrong. A well-framed and staged mastershot can beat a multi-cam/multi-angle shoot with ease.
Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of some of the scenes in RESERVOIR DOGS - particularly the ones between HARVEY KEITEL and STEVE BUSCEMI in the toilets. Hey, if the single-shot has worked for playwrights for centuries then its gotta be ok, eh?
But it still comes back to where to put the camera. Even in a mastershot situation you still need to put your camera in a position that allows the scene to payout in an understandable way for the audience AND look pretty. Don't ignore the pretty aspect. Pretty images are good. Pretty images are your friend.
Ok, so where to put the camera?
The simple answer is this: POINT THE CAMERA WHERE YOU WANT YOUR AUDIENCE TO LOOK.
There's no secret formula. No scientific method. Just point the camera at where you want your audience to look.
People can get into things like the RULE OF THIRDS for framing and stuff like that, but it really comes down to POINT THE CAMERA WHERE YOU WANT YOUR AUDIENCE TO LOOK …and you can add on after that……if it looks right it is right. The human eye likes order. If something doesn’t appear (or ‘read’) right then it more than likely is wrong. Change it until it does look right.
EXAMPLE: A person is in frame but the background is too busy and distracting. It doesn’t look right, so you move the camera (or person) or change your focus to make the background less distracting.
I learned a lot about camera placement not from live-action film-making but from animation, particularly 3D animation.
In 3D animation you have an unlimited choice of places to put your camera, as well as lens' and intricate camera moves. In 3D animation you are unburdened by the physical reality of live-action stuff: you can have a camera do literally anything.
But the thing is that nobody wants to see that. People like simple. They don't like to be bombarded with epilepsy-inducing moves and angles. They like to actually see what is happening in the scene. Strange that. ha ha.
If you follow this simple rule you will ALWAYS put the camera in the 'right' place.
I'll give some examples.
Lets say you are filming a man entering a room through a door. It’s a simple scene. Door is closed. It opens. Man enters.
Now where to put the camera?
Well first things first: where NOT to point the camera?
It would be a bit pointless to point the camera so that the door isn't in shot. That would defeat the whole purpose of having the man entering through the door.
So it makes sense to pit the camera TOWARDS the door. But how close? How high? Is it a moving shot?
Calm down! We're getting there.
For the purpose of the film, you need to ask yourself this: why is the man entering the room? Who is the man? How is this scene important to the script?
These are the questions that will lead you to decide on the final camera placement.
Say for instance that the character of the man is a detective and he is returning to his office. Ok, now we've got the man's motivation: he is returning to HIS office.
But what is his mental state? Is he tired? Angry? Has he just found out that his partner/informant/cat is dead?
The camera placement should inform the audience about the character of the, ahem, character.
It is not just simply there as an emotionless tool to record the onscreen events. If it was then every single scene featuring a man entering a room through a door would be the same. BUT THEY'RE NOT!
DAVID LYNCH filming a man entering a room is different from MARTIN SCORCESE filming the same scene, or STEVEN SPIELBERG, or JOHN CARPENTER, or ALFRED HICHCOCK, STANLEY KUBRICK, ORSON WELLES, AKIRA KUROSAWA, FELLINI etc.
Each director would use their camera to help the audience feel some particular emotion, which the director set out to create in their work.
It's why a character could be shown coming through the door in a heroic manner, or a pathetic manner, scared, angry, or whatever emotion is needed. And all because of where the camera is pointed. Amazing really.
Think of the motivation of the character and the mood you want to place in the audiences mind and you get the 'perfect' camera position.
Here are some random images of characters entering doors.NOTE: [All images taken from Google.com/images. All rights belong to copyright holders]
They are all showing similar actions in dark rooms, but each is depicting a variety of differing ideas.
Notice how there is a mysterious feeling to the majority of the images . Also notice how the angles and framing sizes change considerably from one shot to the next. All basically depict the same action but the audiences emotional response to each is different.
Take for instance the final image (the shadow of the man against the wall). This casts the character are more threatening than the others (regardless of the fact it looks like he's holding a knife!).
Compare it to the topmost image (the side-profile wide shot of the guy in yellowish clothing). This framing makes the character seem more vulnerable. It's almost as if he's walking into a threat hiding in the darkness.
It all comes back to the directors emotional intention towards the audience.
I'll repeat the simple rule one last time:
POINT THE CAMERA WHERE YOU WANT YOUR AUDIENCE TO LOOK.