Directing Films Preproduction – Determining Camera Set Ups & Letters

– Posted in: Directing Films and Videos Shot Lists & Planning Camera Coverage

In this post I’ll show you how to determine, label and group camera setups in a way that fuels your creativity and ensures that you’re designing shots for story impact. It often seems that preparing to shoot a film is harder then the shooting itself. In a lot of ways it is. But, when it’s done well, shoot preparation will guarantee your film is better. This isn’t rocket science, but it does take effort. Trust me – it’s worth it! I’m not going to go into detail on cinematic language, I’ve got other posts that do that. Links to these posts are at the bottom of the page. What I will say is that the script breakdown process will not only help you organize shots, it will exercise your mind’s eye.

The process of pre-visualization and listing each and every shot is essential!

Pre-visualization allows you to edit the movie before it’s shot. Getting good at this might be one of the most valuable skills you can learn. If you’re new to this I’d advise you pick a scene from any well shot movie that has at least three characters involved in some on-screen movement. Ideally this should be a scene your not too familiar with. Read the scripted scene and then list the camera setups for that scene. Once you’ve listed the camera setups, assign a letter to each one. Start with A and go through Z. Don’t use I and O, as they look like digits and could add confusion. If you cycle through all the letters then start again using double letters – AA. Now watch the scene. Pay attention to each camera cut and list each new camera angle, change in camera height or focal length. If the shot is exactly like a previous shot don’t list it. Watch the scene a few times to be sure you haven’t missed a setup. If a change appears it must be listed as a new setup. If you enrolled in film school you’d be doing a whole lot of this! Reverse engineering scenes and entire movies is an incredibly valuable exercise. It’s probably the easiest and cheapest way to improve your directing skills. New filmmakers are often surprised by just how many camera setups it takes to design a scene. But, when you think of a scene as made up of small beats, having a story arc, character emotional arcs and changing points of view, you realize how important each camera setup and the sequencing of shot will be to telling your story with cinema. Enhancing beats, arcs and point of view takes special attention and artistic direction. It’s your job to pre-visualize the scene and break it into camera setups that add story energy.

This is the stuff of great movies!

I’ll paraphrase Martin Scorsese and say, filmmaking is mostly about knowing what to put in the frame and what to leave out. Many books have been written on this subject and one of my favorites is “On Directing Film” by David Mamet. Each shot is designed to enhance a moment, reenforce a theme or foreshadow and event. It has a beginning and and end. The particular angle, height and the focal length of the lens used can say more then a thousand words. Pre-visualize, edit your film with your minds eye and then list you shots on paper. This will become a shooting plan that you and your team can work from. Here are some other posts that deal with camera blocking and the language of cinema.


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