SUMMARY OF READINGS – BASIC SEQUENCES & DIRECTION
Variety is the spice of life. It is also what makes for a great basic sequence. It is easier to remain engaged with a presentation with 6 different images in 60 seconds than one image for 30. Breaking up long scenes into basic sequences helps us tell a more interesting story and allows us to vary the length and emphasis of different parts of the story. Kind of like pausing on words or speaking more slowly when speaking.
As we have indicated in previous posts, it is your responsibility as the creator of the piece to communicate the message clearly to your audience. It is courteous to present images in a way that allows your viewers to process and follow the message. It only hurts your efforts if you disorient the audience to the point where they are confused, disoriented or can’t understand the story. With this in mind, in this post we will cover how to use shots, continuity and screen direction.
A wide shot is a composition that establishes your subject in relation to its surroundings or environment. It is often used as an establishing shot and is traditionally the first image in your sequence. A close up is a tightly framed composition around your subject leaving much of anything else out. It is as close as you can get to your subject. A medium shot is somewhere in between wide and close up shots.
The cutaway is a composition of anything that is related to the main action of the scene, but does not contain any of the subjects. Hence you are cutting away briefly from your subjects. In his book, Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video, Tom Schroeppel writes that the cutaway is the “shot most forgotten by camera persons and most often needed by editors”. It is the one shot that lets you easily change the length or order of your sequence. They can also be used to enhance or add external references or context to your story. A cut away can be an internal dialogue, flashback or footage related to the audio.
So, how do you get these three types of shots? Glad you asked. Dynamic basic sequences are best created when positioning your camera from a variety of locations. The most important thing to remember about shooting a basic sequence is that each new shot should, if at all possible, involve a change in both image size and angles. It also makes editing transitions easier. However, as you explore the possible different ways you can shoot a scene, you must remember to respect the line.
The line is also known as the axis of action. It is the imaginary line that is established by the camera that determines the direction people and things are facing in the audience’s mind. The line is not real, it is a matter of the audience’s perspective and it can be manipulated like everything else in your world. There are ways to cross the line without confusing your viewers:
- Change the screen direction on camera. The subject moves to justify a new angle to the audience. An example would be a news anchor turning to face another camera in the studio.
- Capture the change on footage. The camera is moved while still filming to justify the new angle. This is usually done with a dolly for a smooth pan or tilt.
- Stop on the line. Use a neutral shot or cut away in the middle of the perspective to justify the new camera angle. This can be faked with cut aways.
- Change angle on action cut. At the moment of movement you can cross the line. An example would be if someone kicks down a door, the next clip could be from the perspective of a viewer other side of the doorway. The action justifies the change in angle.
Cutting on action is a tried and true editing technique. If a movement begins in one shot and ends in the next, your viewers eyes will follow the action right through the cut, without paying much attention to anything else. Another important habit to keep in production is to always go for clean entries and clean exits. This simply means that shots begin with the subject entering the frame and end with it exiting. The subject must be completely off camera on the 1st and final frames. This is helpful in the editing room because you don’t have to worry about matching positions. In addition, having these neat ends on clips gives the editor greater flexibility in eliminating or rearranging the sequences.
Finally, clean entrances and exits are a great way to move objects and characters through space and time. For example, if we have a clip of a person walking down a street and turns the corner, where there are completely off camera, then the next clip can show that same person on a different street, at home reading the paper or in the woods, its OK, because when the audience experiences that moment of the subject being off camera, in their minds, they can justify time and distance occurring before the scene. There is no break in continuity.
Speaking of clean exits, I will end this post with some examples of these concepts in action:
The Revenant – Opening Battle Scene – Seamless Continuity
Directed by Alejandro G. Iñárritu
This is a brilliant display of continuity, during the opening battle scene, you see the trappers move from their camp in the woods to the boats in what seemed like one long hand held cut, but many were stationary shots from extreme angles or close ups creating that impression. In addition, the line is crossed only when the subject becomes either the trappers or attacking braves. It makes the unfolding violence visceral and personal as if you are there.
“That 70’s Show” – Basement Circle Conversation Sequences – Moving the Camera on the Line
If you ever want to shoot on the line this is how you do it. This is also a great example of clean entry and clean exit. Seamless continuity and even though the viewer spins around the room, it is easy to follow and not disorienting.
Spike Lee:The Dolly Shot
Another master at crossing the line and cutting on action is Spike Lee. Making amazing camera moves on a dolly with medium shots have become part of his unique signature style. He often does this to create a level of intimacy with his characters and to highlight a critical moment in their (or the story’s) development.
“Trainwreck” 2015 – Monogamy isn’t realistic scene – Onlooker Cut Aways
Directed by Judd Apatow
This is one of my all time favorite scenes. It is clearly shot from three angles and they use the wide angle cleanly. Almost like a cut away. Colin Quinn’s vocals, hand movements and gestures are are all in sync with the shots. The cut away also demonstrates how absurd his rationalization of fear of commitment is as he explains it to these two little girls. No mistakes here, just great editing.
Examples of bad continuity, jump cuts and other production mistakes.
“Movie Mistakes: When does Film Continuity REALLY Matter?”
By This Guy Edits
Here is a short clip on continuity in filmmaking and why it may not be that important in the big picture (see what I did there). Directors may know there are mistakes in their final productions, but look past them (man, I am on a roll) due to other considerations, This example has a ton of bad continuity examples.
Shawn is an Information Technology manager in Washington D.C. and a graduate student at Quinnipiac University pursuing his masters in Interactive Media and Communications.
Schroeppel, T., & DeLaney, C. (2015). The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video. Allworth. Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Bare-Bones-Camera-Course-Video/dp/1621535266
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