Sunday, August 16, 2015

Notes from Grammar of the Shot

Grammar of the Shot (Second edition) by Roy Thompson and Christopher J Bowen, Focal Press/Elsevier 2009.

This is a very handy reference book which clearly explains visual language.  Essential reading for anyone planning to make films.The intro explains how “collectively, over time, we have learned to codify our visual communications” and things now have recognisable meanings. There is an established grammar – rules of depiction.  The authors argue that film language is the same for all cultures around the world and that success depends on how well the filmmaker’s vision is communicated.  They must decide early on in the creation process what is important for the viewer to see and how they should be shown the information.

Think: If I were watching this motion picture, what would I want to be seeing right now?

A shot is the smallest unit of visual info, captured at one time from one point of view.  A change in camera angle, position or focal length means it becomes a different shot.  A different way of viewing the action.

Types of shot

·      Extreme close-up (XCU/ECU) – frames one aspect of subject – eyes, mouth, ear, hand
·      Big close-up (BCU) – face occupies much of the frame; facial movements and expressions need to be subtle
·      CLOSE UP (CU) is intimate, magnified, more detailed and precise; aka the ‘head shot’, sometimes shoulder visible
·      Medium close-up (MCU) – aka a ‘two-button’ as cuts off at chest, viewers looking at the face
·      MEDIUM SHOT (MS) approximates how we see most things around us – feels comfortable; may also be called the ‘Waist’ shot – need to be careful not to ‘break frame’
·      Medium long shot (MLS) – cuts off just above the knee usually (aka ‘the Cowboy’ so in Westerns could show the firearm holster)
·      LONG SHOT (LS) or Wide shot (WS) is more inclusive – shows relationship with physical space, full body shot
·      Very long shot (VLS) – exterior or large interior, environment still important but more detail on the human
·      Extreme long shot (XLS or ELS) – often used as the ‘establishing shot’ at the beginning of a film or sequence; shows where and often when and who


Arrangement of visual elements and their placement in the overall frame is important and will convey meaning to the audience even if it is subconscious.  Gives meaning and subtext as well as beauty, balance and order.

Try not to give too much headroom as it wastes screen space and can throw off the overall composition.

When subject looks into camera it is called ‘subjective shooting’. Rare in fiction (called ‘breaking the fourth wall’). Normally the actors behave as if the camera is not there – this is called ‘objective shooting’.

Look room is the empty space we provide within the frame – empty area or ‘negative space’ gives balance to the weight of actor’s head. This also impels the audience to want to see what the actor is looking at. If the actor’s face is too close to the near ‘wall’ of the frame, it can seem congested, claustrophobic, trapped.  Negative space behind the head can imply suspense, dread, vulnerability etc

Use the rule of thirds and consider camera angles as this feeds in to the information conveyed to the viewer. A straight view from the front can be flat and boring. The ¾ front or ¾ profile is the most common angle – gives a clear view and increased degree of dimension.  The ‘taking lens’ is on an even plane – a neutral angle positioned to observe and the audience can relate.

Note that not showing the eyes clearly can create an impression of duplicity, distrust or emotional disconnect.

Another common approach is the over-the-shoulder (OTS) giving depth to a shot.  Audience sees from the character’s POV, which encourages empathy.  A view entirely from behind hides thoughts, feelings and intentions but it can create tension and suspense.

The high angle shot via foreshortening can portray the subject as weaker, powerless, subservient.  Creates a power dynamic.  Often flattering for the actor. A low angle shot often shows a looming, significant powerful person. It is the tilt of the camera lens that determines what the shot becomes.

The profile two-shot is common for a dialogue. A MCU or CU will force their faces together in an unnatural way (unless romantic or aggressive).

Two people standing facing the camera is more subjective in the direct to camera two-shot. Can be difficult to frame and sometimes there is an overlap with one figure becoming more dominant. 

The OTS two–shot (most commonly as a MCU) allows intimacy and ease of viewing as there is only one person to look at.  Often have to make actors stand unnaturally close to each other to get the two-shot framing. In film language, proximity and grouping equate to unity.

The viewer is kept locked into understandable spatial relationships via the line of the horizon.  This can be broken with the dutch angle – a tilt to create imbalance and a feeling of instability.

Depth can be portrayed with the use of the vanishing point. Conversely a flat wall can show a character is trapped.    The space is divided into foreground (FG), middle ground (MG) and background (BG) and these acts as layers.

A foreground element must enhance the composition. Avoid having arbitrary elements as they may distract the viewer from more important details.  The majority of action takes place in the middle ground.  Frame shots so that the background does not overpower the main action.  The layers allow our brain to establish depth cues.  The size of a known object also triggers depth cues.  In exterior LS we see atmospherics – particulates suspended in the air.

What is in focus in the shot is the important thing for the viewer to watch.   Shifting the focus from one subject to another as the action unfolds is called pulling focus or pushing focus (or racking focus). There is also following focus when the camera is tracking a moving object.


“… will often be your most powerful creative tool in your filmmaking toolbox.”

Factors to consider:
  • ·      Light as energy
  • ·      Colour temperature
  • ·      Natural or artificial light
  • ·      Quantity of light: sensitivity and exposure
  • ·      Quality of light: soft vs hard
  • ·      Contrast
  • ·      Basic character lighting: three point method
  • ·      Set and location lighting

Hard light can create scary, dangerous, harsh or mysterious environments. Soft light implies a sense of warmth, friendliness or romance.

High contrast, snappy or punchy lighting schemes can make for more dramatic or suspenseful imagery and help yield more depth – low-key lighting.

Flat lighting schemes can make images seem more open, friendly or brighter but flatter. High-key.

Three –point lighting method: key light; fill light; back light. Contrast ratio.
Also think about the angle of incidence.

In fictional narrative cinematography, lighting is generally meant to be motivated (generated by some actual source within the reality of the film world, like a lamp or sun).

When the light is near the recording camera’s angle on action, it is called front lighting which tends to be flat and bland.  Shadows are not welcome unless used for creative or thematic purposes.  Side lighting can cause a half bright, half dark face split.  Light behind is called kicker or rim light. Best to start with key light roughly 45 degrees from camera, fill light 45 degrees on the other side.

Top lighting cases shadows in eye sockets, which prevents audience from relating to the character.  Under-lighting can appear ghoulish. No fill will create a silhouette effect.  Light in the middle ground and deep background helps separate the layers of distance.

Any light fixture that emits light is called a practical.

Lighting and compositional choices need to serve the “story”, not fight against it or leave it bland/incomplete.  What you choose to reveal to the audience or hide from them will yield more or less info, more or less understanding and more or less enjoyment of the project.

Shooting for editing

·      Matching shots in a scene – the entire visual story needs to be told
·      Continuity – shoot coverage. You ‘cover’ the main actions form several angles and will several different framings.
·      Continuity of screen direction – filmmakers have a responsibility to the audience to present a knowable world that conforms to constant physical world rules eg if a persons moves away to the left, they must keep moving away to the left until we see some change in the movement happen on screen.
·      The line – screen direction – important narrative info and spatial relationship data can be discerned by lines of direction, aka sight lines
·      The imaginary line – the 180 degree rule (axis of action)
·      Jumping the line (or crossing the line) – reverses the established directions of left and right, inverting the film space of the unaware viewer
·      The 30 degree rule – move camera at least 30 degrees around semi-circle before framing up a new shot; will avoid what is know as a jump cut (two shots with similar framing cause a visual jump in space or time)
·      Reciprocating imagery (matching shots) – when shooting to cover one character, create exact same corresponding frame for other character; need equal numbers of shots and matching framing for each character; eg OTS allows audience to keep track of the physical placement of each character in the scene
·      Eye-line match – audience traces an imaginary line from the character’s eyes to the edge of the frame where they are looking; next shot should be object of interest revealed – important it is from a similar direction, angle and height that match the perspective from the vantage point of the character observing; must maintain and respect eye-line (this is a “setup and then payoff” scenario maker – illusion of connection and character association is made by the audience)

Dynamic shots

Blocking talent.  Staging means the physical placement of subjects on the set, within the confines of the recorded frame.  Blocking talent refers to the physical movement of subjects on the set and within confines of the same frame.  Left to right can reinforce space and direction or blocking deep into the set adds to the illusion of a 3D frame.  Creative blocking will add energy to shots.

This can also have a meaning in the narrative (eg American frontier stories move right to left ie East to West)


Advantages: gives kinetic energy; personal immediacy – subjective POV; easy to readjust framing; free movement around the set
Disadvantages: shaky; difficult to focus; difficult to cut with static shots; not neutral so may be too subjective; limits focal length flexibility

Pan and Tilt – horizontal and vertical positioning. This is not a natural movement for human visual system. Our eye travels along the space locking onto points of interest.  To help the audience accept the movement, good to motivate it eg following an eye-line.

The audience places itself in the position of the camera, identifying with the role of that observer. Slower speed means you can record images and not disturb the audience.

Shooting the Pan and the Tilt

Needs to have the start frame, the camera movement and the end frame.
Start frame is a well-composed still shot that could stand alone as a good static image; let action begin and then begin the movement.  [NB cutting on movement, either into a shot already in motion or out of shot once in motion is visually dangerous.]
Camera movement – should be smooth and steady and “lead” the movement; needs proper headroom, look room and pictorial composition should be maintained throughout
End frame – well-composed static shot that can complete the action; a steady locked-off frame to cut out from at the end of the P & T.

Pushing a camera into the set or toward the subject = trucking in. Moving away = trucking out (or tracking in and tracking out).

A wheeled dolly achieves smooth gliding.  Steadicam provides best dolly qualities with advantages of handheld photography.

A combination of several movements is sometimes called a developing shot.

Cranes, booms and jib arms can create sweeping upward to downward moves to add large areas of information and sense of grandeur.

Grammar = well-established and proven set of principles that will enable the audience to understand visual intentions

Communicating with Talent – use language that makes sense to them (eg “please slide to YOUR right by an inch or two”). Shooting an ECU, explain how tight frame is as a small movement can “break frame” (move beyond the edges of the established frame). “Less is more”.

Ensure an eye-light – life light (twinkle). Ensure the reflection shows the source coming from the correct direction of other known sources. Eyes always every important.

Safe action line and domestic cutoff. Approx 10% of picture information can be lost. Will need to compensate for appropriate headroom and look room. Keep all important action in safe zone, especially if you are shooting 16:9 imagery that might be displayed on 4:3 screen.

Shoot overlapping action for the edit – will provide good and varied choices for an action edit or continuity edit. Wide shots and medium shots may call for more overlap due to inclusion of more visuals.

Matching speed of action.  Closer shots of overlapping action should have the movements performed at a slightly slower speed.  Close ups with magnification will appear to move much faster. The less screen space and object or action occupies within the frame, the slower the movement will appear. Shoot the CU insert shots slightly slower and at normal speed to provide choice in edit.

Shooting ratio – relationship between amount of footage recorded and what makes it into the final edited piece.  Documentaries have larger ratio. 

Storyboards and shot lists – map out the framing and composition for each shot. Overheads can be simple plans of placement. Shot lists account for all shots need to get coverage for a scene.  Preproduction.

Always have something in focus.  We do not like to watch blurry images. There are special cases for creative use but focus also helps the audience to pay attention. It is almost always best to rack focus to the background focal plane as soon as the character exits the frame.  The audience can then immediately rest on the background.

Frame for correct “look room” on shots that will edit together. Compose along the 1/3 line on frame left . The shot of the other character will be mirrored in composition.  Eye-lines trace back and forth across the empty space. Allow appropriate space even though an inanimate object does not look back.

Matching camera angles when covering dialogue.  Shot-reverse-shot.  CUs and OTSs should match and mirror so the viewer can understand the overall scene’s lighting and character placement in the film space. 

Place important objects in the top half of the frame. They will have more weight/visual presence and are assigned greater importance.  Interesting compositions use entire frame and allow (or compel) the viewers to roam around the frame. Lighting can help with the eye direction.

Colour choices – can denote meaning also dark clothing can get lost in dark background. Bright colours appear closer.  Coloured gels on lights can create washes eg cool blue for moonlight.

Headroom. Too much forces eyes and face too low in frame. Too little looks wrong. Err towards less – safer to lose top edge for frame so chin and jaw still fully visible.  Consistent head shots in a shot-reverse-shot scenario = important. Try not to reframe drastically while the subject is speaking.

Beware of distracting objects to avoid losing impact. Keep composition strong – anything with noticeable movement or bright colour will be an eye magnet.  Make sure no strange lines come “out” from behind a person’s head.

Use depth of field to stage shots with several people – layer multiple subjects. The foreground, middle ground and near background become a combines zone where persons can be ‘blocked’ to fit within the frame. Bodies may have a slight overlap by faces should all be clearly visible and discernible.  Not often desirable to have one or more character’s heads turned away but it may seem unnatural if all looking in the same direction.  Experiment.

In a three person dialogue scene, matching two shots can be problematic. As well as getting two-shots, get clean single close-ups of all three for editing.

Try to always show both eyes of your subject. The ¾ profile is a highly desirable blocking/camera angle but not looking directly at the lens as this becomes ‘subjective’.  Full profile is a specialty shot.  ¾ approach is solid and will not disappoint the audience.

Be aware of eye-line directions in closer shots. Eye-line unites the subject’s gaze with an object of interest.

Understand when and how to perform a zoom. If the camera is locked, a zoom in simply magnifies the centre of the wider frame.  This optical shift is not possible by the human eye so it can jar.  Try hiding the movement by combining the focal length change with a panning or tilting action.

All shots should be motivated but especially dolly shots. Usually the motion of an object or character is sufficient for trucking in – this replicates what a human might do to get a closer look.

Trucking out is more unnatural though. Motivation would come from a character moving towards the camera or at the end of a scene when larger areas of the environment can be revealed.  This provides a visual overview (often with crane boom or helicopter mount) as a final summation to the story.
Movement of the talent can provide motivation to cross the 180 line. Following the action with a continuous shot changes the line.  Possible to also use a cutaway shot for the editor. His breaks the spatial attention of the viewer and the next shot may be from the far side of the original axis of action. 

Get the camera rolling before any critical action happens – ensures all equipment is up to operating speed.  Give critical extra footage at the head and tail of the shot.

Beware of continuity traps – objects on set which will change over time.  Clocks, movement of the sun, audio concerns, any background activity.

Use short focal lengths to hide camera movement.  Handheld with long focal length gives shaky and blurred image.

Avoid wide lenses for close-ups – warps face, especially nose.

Control depth of field as only one critical plane of focus.  This can easily be lost with movement.

Slate the head of your shots for identification and organisation – use a physical ‘slate’ (whiteboard) or voice.  A physical slate is held upside down for a tail slate.

  • Know the rules before you break the rules.  Otherwise you may create a visual experience that could confuse and alienate the viewer.
  • The reason for shooting is editing.  If it does not cut together it will become unusable.
  • Your shots should enhance the entire story.  Images will augment the narrative.
  • Involve the viewer as much as possible. Engagement will come from them needing to pay attention. Show, don’t tell.
  • Try hard not to be obtrusive.  The camera should be unnoticed by the audience.
  • Know your equipment. Have it ready and organised.
  • Be familiar with your subject.  Preparation and anticipation will help.
  • Understand lighting – natural and artificial. Lighting for exposure (enough to record the image) and lighting for creative purposes.
  • Study what has already been done.  Find inspiration and common themes or methods that have been explored before you.  BE WELL-VERSED IN THE ARTS!

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