Improve Your Films With Better Camera And Actor Movement

With each short film I make, I learn important lessons about the process of filmmaking. Over the years I have tried to become more and more purposeful with the way I block my actors and my camera. When I was a teenager, first shooting with my dad's VHS camcorder, I simply set up the camera and then had my actors perform in front of it. The result was that it looked like you were watching a stage play... a very, very, very bad stage play.

From those experiences I learned about coverage and so I started moving the camera into the scene for medium shots and close-ups. But those shots were very conventional and boring. I just pointed the camera at the actor who was speaking and then cut back and forth. And the actors always just stood still. There was no blocking involved.

But that was about 25 years ago. Since that time I've learned about all the endless ways a director can cover a scene and how each shot selection should have a purpose and should convey something about character and story. I've also become more observant when I watch other films, noticing how the placement and movement of the camera balances with the blocking of the actors to create a more dynamic composition. Video essays like this one from Nerdwriter are extremely helpful if you want to learn more about how blocking can communicate so much about characters, their relationships to each other, and story.

A lot of the time when I'm watching other films, I ask myself "Why?" When I see a character enter through a doorway and the camera is directly overhead, looking down on the actor, I ask, "Why did the director choose to shoot it this way?" From that basic "Why?" question I can start to think more critically about what I'm seeing on the screen and, therefore, discern more about the character, the situation, or the themes within the film. It's a good exercise.

If you watch enough movies and start to think more critically about what you're seeing, you will also start to notice how conventional some of these films are captured. For example, you might be watching a dialogue scene between two characters and notice how the two actors are just sitting still throughout the entire scene, and how the camera just cuts back and forth between medium shots to show who's talking. Walter Murch, in his book In the Blink of an Eye called this "Dragnet Editing," after the editing style of the 1960's TV series.

I faced this challenge in the short film I directed last year, Final Hit. The last scene runs approximately six minutes, half of the entire film's running time. And it consists solely of two men sitting in one room, talking to each other.

Going into production, I knew the scene had to build suspense and tension throughout, leading ultimately to a dramatic revelation. So I had to storyboard the scene meticulously and think strategically about the blocking, both for the camera and the actors. Each movement of the actors had to have a reason and a purpose behind it. Otherwise, I knew that the whole thing would devolve into a mundane scene between two guys who are just sitting in chairs talking back and forth.

Consider this essay from Every Frame a Painting, about how Japanese director Akira Kurosawa uses movement in his films.

So as you prepare for your own film projects, think purposefully about how you can combine the movement of both your actors and your camera to convey more about the story and the characters, which will ultimately lead to a more satisfying viewing experience for your audience.