We’re taking a look at how movies are filmed. If you haven’t noticed, movies are made up of a string of shot sequences—don’t confuse these with whole scenes. In creating a shot sequence, the aim of using a camera is to imitate the way the human mind uses the eyes. Our minds will not let our eyes stay fixed on any one subject for more than four or five seconds. Our eyes are constantly moving and focusing on different subjects.
For example, you may be walking down the street and you come across two of your friends having a small picnic at one of the tables in the city park at the corner. Your mind will probably direct your eyes into the following views of the couple:
- First, you would have a Wide-Angle or Long Shot of the entire scene.
- As you walk toward the couple, you will look at one person, and then the other.
- As you come closer, you might shift your focus and look at what is on the table.
- Your next glance will probably be at the first person who speaks to you.
- As the conversation continues, your eyes will shift from person to person, from person to table, from an action of one person to that person’s face etc., etc. The combinations could be endless.
Have an Objective in Mind
This type of realistic behavior is what you want to capture in your fiction writing, and the way to do it is by utilizing various camera angles, the difference being that you have a specific intention in doing so. Rather than show a random encounter with boring dialog and nothing all that interesting happening in the scene—which is what real life often is like—you have an objective in playing this scene out, that high point you are leading to, a moment of revelation or plot twist that is going deliver with a punch when you reach it. And so every camera angle is used deliberately to give the most punch when needed.
Television producers follow a basic rule that no shot should last more than thirty seconds, and no scene should last longer than three minutes. This is the 30-3 Rule. This is the basic idea of how shot sequences are made. You take one long scene and break it down into a variety of short shots.
How does this translate to fiction? A scene can take much longer than three minutes to read, and sometimes it may cover a number of moments in time, some even separated by days and weeks. But if you break down your scenes and look at the segments that take place, you will find a natural rhythm that feels just right. Remember, scenes should be mini novels, with a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t work to place strict rules on scenes, for they should be as long as they need to be—whatever it takes to effectively reveal the bit of storyline intended while keeping the pacing and tension taut. However, I believe if you lay out your scenes intentionally with a series of camera shots, leaving out excessive narration and backstory, your scenes will “move” like a movie and will feel like concise, succinct movie scenes.
Two Types of Camera Shots
Essentially, there are two types of camera shots—stationary and moving. I’ve never seen them classified this way, so I use these terms I came up with. Or you could think of them as static and dynamic, or still and kinetic. Use whatever terms work for you. But basically we’re talking about filming a moment in which the camera is either moving or not moving. Simple.
You decide which types of camera shots you will use based on your high moment. If the high point of your scene involves showing an expression of someone’s face, an object (like a ring), a small detail not before noticed, then the key camera shot will be a Close-Up (CU), which might also be called a Close Shot, or it might be Angle On. If the high moment will be a sudden massive explosion due to an unnoticed gas leak, the key moment will require a Pull Back (PB) and/or a Long Shot (LS). By knowing the key moment and how your plot builds to it, you can plan the camera angles to best enhance the visual experience and evoke the strongest emotional reaction from your reader.
Of course, your scenes have more to them than just the high moment, and for that reason, you will need to use a number of camera angles for each scene, for the most part. Once you identify your high moment and determine what shot is needed then (since that shot needs the most emphasis), you can work backward and forward, figuring out the rest of the shots. This is just my method. I have no idea if movie directors think this way or plan each scene out in any particular fashion. Maybe some work chronologically, deciding on the first shot and going from there. But I believe if you use this method, it will best serve you and the needs of your plot.
So as we go through these stationary and moving camera shots, think about when you might want to keep the “camera still” and when you want to move it from one place to another. As you will see, there’s a specific purpose to each shot.
This week, think about the high moment in one or more of your scenes. Do you need to be up close to someone or something when that moment is played out or that bit of important information is revealed? Do you need to be far away to show something vague or give a more sweeping view of what is happening? Play around with different camera angles you might use to highlight that moment and share some insights in the comments of this post.