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Film Making Production Tips: Cinematography: Basic Camera Movement
Michael Wohl on Wed, October 29th 0 comments
Whether you're filming a high-end production with a full camera crew or a short story with your smart phone, these cinematography tips on camera movement from Michael Wohl are essential to know.
To learn more about how to make sure all your shots are communicating as effectively as possible, see Film Craft 105 - The Cinematographer

Understanding basic camera movement

The simplest type of camera movement is also the most natural. Panning the camera simulates the experience of turning your head; which is something we do unconsciously and instinctively all the time. It’s familiar, it’s organic, and so it’s something that you can use frequently without disrupting the viewer’s immersion in the story.

PAN DIAGRAM

PAN DIAGRAM.

Tilting the camera is a vertical pan, like what you see when you look up or look down. 

TILT DIAGRAM

TILT DIAGRAM.

Now, while tilting is as natural as panning, in fact, we don’t tilt our necks up and down all that much in real life, at least not more than a little bit. So making a big dramatic tilt can feel a bit abrupt to your viewers. Use those sorts of moves sparingly.

Use the right tools: a fluid-head tripod

In order to pan or tilt, you need to use a fluid-head tripod. This is a tripod head where there is hydraulic fluid in the bearings of the head so there is a natural resistance when you move it.

These heads can be moved smoothly with gradual starts and stops, which is essential for good, professional-looking camera work. Such tripods will always have a couple of controls; a lock, to prevent panning or tilting, and usually they’ll also have a damper, to increase the friction and force slower movements. The longer you extend the pan handle, the smoother your movements will be. 

Plan ahead before you roll camera

Most important when doing a pan or a tilt, or any camera move really, is that you need to know what your starting frame is going to be and what your ending frame is going to be. 

Let me say that again, lest you forget it: you must know what your starting frame is going to be and what your ending frame is going to be. This is one of the most important tips. And the only way you’re going to get your camera move right is to rehearse. Practice the move over and over again until you know exactly where it starts and where it ends. 

If you’re trying to create an organic, engaging experience for your viewer, the worst thing you can do is just start panning without any idea where you’re going to stop. And nothing says amateur like a loose, wandering pan that has no purpose. 


Justify all camera movement

Remember that when you move the camera, it’s effectively like grabbing your viewer’s head and forcing them to look at what you think is worth looking at. Don’t do it unless you’ve got something important to show. 

Put another way, camera moves need to exist for a reason. You pan or tilt to something. Never just pan to “survey the scene” if you want to show a large complex scene, grab a series of shots; a wide master and a group of close-ups that illustrate aspects of the scene you’re showing. Then edit those together and you will communicate much more effectively than a meandering pan around a busy space. 

You might make an exception to this if you’re shooting a non-fiction scene, something that is happening in front of you, and you’re trying to grab a bunch of different shots without starting and stopping the camera, but in that case, pan quickly and decisively to the new framing. Don’t think of the camera moves as parts of the footage you intend to keep. It’s just quicker than stopping and starting the camera over and over again for each shot. 

Don’t ever expect that your editor (even if it’s you) is going to want to use that luxurious slow pan from one person in the crowd to the next. Trust me. They’re not. They’re going to want to get as quickly as possible to a new, nicely composed static frame. 

If they’re going to want to use a pan, it’s going to be a pan that has a specific purpose: that shows the physical relationship between two things; or that shows an object moving through a space, or when it’s essential to emphasize that the multiple subjects of your shot all exist simultaneously in real space. A camera move should always move the story forward by providing new information that a static shot wouldn’t have been able to show. Otherwise, it’s just going to slow the story down.

And once again, I’ll repeat: always rehearse camera moves over and over again before you start shooting. That way you’ll know what to look for so you’ll know when to start slowing down in order to stop precisely and smoothly on your target. Rehearsing can also help you figure out where you should physically stand in order to make the smoothest camera move possible. 

Prepare your body for the move

Often, especially on a long pan, it makes more sense to position your body to be comfortable at the end of the move, rather than at the beginning. 

Poor pan movement:

Good pan movement:

You want to be able to end the move smoothly and stand comfortably after the movement is done. Often there’s more to see after the move is complete, so you want to be in a position where you can film the remainder of the scene without being all twisted up. 

More camera movement tips & tricks

Another important tip: hold the opening frame for at least 5 seconds and sit on the closing frame for at least 5 seconds. You never know when your editor is going to want to use more of that shot or do a dissolve. If so, she’s going to need those extra frames in order to do it. 

And you should think about the composition of those starting and ending frames with the same attention you give to a static shot. Make them both beautiful and if you can, make the movement beautiful too.

One tip for making great panning shots is to follow a moving object. If you can coordinate your camera move with an object moving in the frame, like a flying bird, or a person walking through a crowd, and use that moving object to motivate your camera move, that’s the best case scenario. 

Of course you still want to make sure your beginning and ending frames are well thought out, but by linking them with that moving object the viewer won’t even notice that the camera moved—which should always be your goal: if the viewer is aware that they’re watching a camera move that means they’re thinking about the filmmaker and not the film. And while you may be vain enough to think that’s cool, it’s even cooler to step back and let the story do the work. 

One last tip: Try shooting your camera move at multiple speeds. It’s often hard to know how long you’re going to want a shot to last in the editing room, and unlike a static shot, a camera move forces the editor to use the whole thing. So sometimes it’s nice to give your editor a couple options; do a slow version and then do a faster version. And then do a really fast version.

Of course, these suggestions are just a starting point. To learn more about how to make sure all your shots are communicating as effectively as possible, see Film Craft 105 - The Cinematographer

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