How to compose yours shots
John Campbell received his MA in film from the International Film School, Wales. He won the cinematography award at the Bristol International Film Festival for a short film called Blue Morning You in 1999. He now works as a freelance film maker for public bodies and arts organisations across the UK and Europe. Here he answers what we need to know about what all the Resolution and file formats mean?
Video can be captured and compressed into several different formats. This is what they all mean:
Full High Definition
The largest size offered by DSLR cameras. The frame size is 1,920 x 1,080 pixels and the video produced is of extremely high quality, making it perfect for large screens.
High Definition - HD
High definition may be smaller at 1,280 x 720 pixels, but video recorded at this size is still of high quality.
High Definition Video - HDV
The format is 1,440 x 1,080 pixels recorded at 25Mb/s. It is found on tape-based camcorders. The frame will expand to Full HD (1,920 x 1,080) when viewed, but the initial compression can reduce image quality.
Standard Definition - SD
Most movie DVDs are produced in SD. The format conforms to the 720 x 576 (PAL) or 720 x 480 (NTSC) standards
and can be seen at either the 4:3 or 16:9 ratio, the latter being the most common.
Video Graphics Array - VGA
This 640 x 480 video format is good for emailing, use in PowerPoint presentations and web productions. It is of a lower quality, but the smaller file sizes make it easier to distribute. Most cameras offer a VGA option.
Advanced Video Codec High Definition - AVCHD
This system comes in many options including 1080i, 1080p and 720p. AVCHD was a joint development by
Sony and Panasonic in 2005. It has since been developed for the production of Blu-ray discs.
The Moving Pictures Expert Group was formed in 1988 to establish standards for audio and video compression and transmission. MPEG-1 emerged from this group in 1993 as an audio and video compression standard for video CDs. Then in 1995 MPEG-2 arrived as a standard for audio, video and broadcast television networks. It was also used on the first DVDs and is a good format for HD footage. In 1999 MPEG-4 was born to protect movies from unauthorised copying. It is one of the preferred formats for uploading to the web.
This compression standard emerged in 2003 and uses MPEG-4 Part 10. It applies lossless compression to maintain high image quality and is also known as Advanced Video Coding (AVC). This format is capable of handling the HD content found on Blu-ray discs and is the format used for videos downloaded from iTunes. AVCHD is
like AVC, but was developed for saving HD videos on tapeless consumer camcorders.
The DivX format developed by DivX Inc is based around MPEG-4 Part 2. It uses lossy compression to make the file sizes much smaller, while still retaining a fairly high level of quality. DivX movies take up around one-tenth of the space of DVD movies, which makes them ideally suited for movie downloads. A full DivX movie can usually be stored on a single CD.
Windows Media Video was developed by Microsoft and is a compressed format for streaming video over the internet. It is the default format for Windows Media Player.
Audio Video Interleave is an older, less common Microsoft-developed format.
QuickTime Player works on Windows as well as Mac computers. Although it has its own MOV format, it is compatible with MPEG-1, MPEG-4, H.264, WMV and AVI files, as well as many others. It is free to download from www.apple.com
What is the shot and what is needed in there? Is the background distracting? Is there unwanted movement from people or objects? Are there lights that will distract you away from the action? Is there going to be anything that can upset continuity? Do I have enough room to move the camera around? Or, in the case of a wedding or other event, am I going to get in the way? Sometimes the ability to be as anonymous as possible is a good thing.
By asking these common-sense questions, you will be able to compose the best shots possible for your film, cutting down on problematic areas in which you may have to compromise.
The following techniques are the main starting points for creating dynamic compositions. Even though I call them rules, they are simply very good guides (which can be and are broken by experienced film makers once they understand them fully).
Watch as many films as you can, especially those that are similar to what you wish to do, to see how those film makers explore the techniques we are about to discuss. See how they are adhered to and, indeed, broken. For what not to do, look at amateur films, which are widely available on the internet, most are shaky and ill-composed with poor sound. Unless you practise, the process will never become instinctive. After a while, techniques stick and you will be equipped to create beautiful well-thought-out films. This is important for all forms, from wedding videos to dramatic adaptations.
Rule of thirds
The rule of thirds is a basic technique that is simple to learn. This rule says the frame should be divided into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, creating nine equal sections like a noughts and crosses board. Where the horizontal and vertical lines converge are the key points where we place certain points of interest within the shot. They are more widely known as power points. When most people start taking photographs or shooting film, they instinctively use the view finder to line the subject in the centre of frame. This is where an understanding of the rule of thirds comes in handy. You can use the horizontal and vertical lines as guides to the horizontals and verticals in your shot, and place a subject or object on any of the lines and or power points — this tends give a more powerful feel with energy and tension to your composition.
Panning with someone walking across a shot that has a long flat horizon is slightly different — pan with the subject’s eye line in different sections in the frame. See how they differ and feel. You will be amazed how a simple concept makes such a difference. Understanding this rule will make it easier when you come to edit, as you will find it hard cutting from shot to shot if people’s eye lines are bobbing around the screen. Remember, you don’t want your audience to be seasick. Turn the television on and look at any programme and you will notice how they frame their actors’ eye lines, especially when they are talking to another person. It is more noticeable when they cut between close-ups, when nine times out of 10, the eye line will be in the top third. It makes for a smooth transition from shot to shot
The odds rather than evens rule applies to all forms of visual art, which states that having an odd number of subject matter is more visually pleasing than an even number. Having three or five of something in a shot is better than having four things.
The most exciting thing for me as a film maker working with HD capability on DSLRs is the chance to use a full range of lenses that are affordable to the enthusiast photographer. All of my filmic ideas are captured with a Sony Z1 HDV camera. It is adequate in capturing images and is good quality for a camera in its class, but the lenses you can buy for it are poor. High-end optics only come into play when you’re dealing with the RED One camera or Digi Beta etc. However, with the ability to have high-end lenses within reach (especially financially), the DSLRs with HD movie mode give you the possibility of having high-end optics when you shoot.
The two types of lens you are probably using are zoom and/or telephoto. There is no right or wrong lens to use — the main consideration is your situation. If you have the time to continually swap lenses around and measure distances and work out field of view, then, by all means, use your primes. But I will say that the only time I have ever used prime lenses in film making is when I have shot on film and meticulously worked out each shot beforehand, having scouted the location, as inevitably with primes you will have more camera positions to deal with. It would be almost impossible to shoot an event such as a wedding with a set of primes. Just the noise alone of you having to change lenses and continuously moving camera position will make you stick out like a sore thumb and annoy the participants.
Instead, I recommend investing in a good quality fast zoom lens, which will serve this type of situation better. The reason for the fast lens is that as soon as you switch to HDV mode, you will lose a couple of stops worth of light. Shooting video needs 24fps, so getting light in the lens may be a problem, especially where there is mood lighting, at a dinner for example. Long exposures are not an option, and unless you are able to light the scene properly, you are stuck with the available light.
However, if you have time to use a nice wide angle to establish a scene, do so. The advantage of being able to pop on a good wide-angle lens, especially when people are gathering or when shooting a nice pan of a vista, is that it will make your film that little bit more interesting. It’s about common sense, really. I like the prospect of being able to shoot with the option of using primes, as I find the optics that little bit sharper. In the future I will be going through a few techniques that will incorporate the use of different lenses, including information about your angle of view to the subject matter. This is important when interviewing people, and ties in with this month’s 180-degree rule, as well as camera angles, depth of field and racking focus. See the April issue of Photography Monthly for more on this.
On a sheet of acetate, draw out a noughts and crosses grid in black permanent marker, and place it over the lens on your camera so that it fills the frame, making sure you have nine equal sections. You can either hold it over the lens to align your shot, or, if you are just practising, tape it to the lens — use a low tacky tape. Artists as well as photographers have been using this technique for centuries (old masters such as Leonardo Da Vinci used see-through muslin and paint) but the principle is as applicable today as it was then. The more you practise, the better the image. This exercise will focus your mind and make the rule of thirds intuitive and instinctive to you.
Crossing the line
The 180-degree rule is one of the first rules to learn as a camera operator. The simplest definition is that the same subjects within a scene, whether objects or people, should maintain the same left-right relationship.
Get a small table that has enough room around it to set up your camera easily. Instead of Bob and Ben, use any two objects that are different. Make a 10-second film clip from the same angles as shown in the illustrations, not forgetting the rule of thirds. Import your video into Moviemaker. First drag your clips in from the C and D camera positions and put them onto the timeline. Press play. You will notice the jump in the cut. Now place the shots from the A and B camera onto the timeline, and watch how much smoother the cut is.
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