— Learnaboutfilm (@learnaboutfilm) May 12, 2017
Movement will give your film life. Most shots should have some kind of movement in them, even if it’s very slight.
You can film things moving in front of a static camera, or you can move the camera itself.
If there’s interesting movement within the picture – like milling crowds of people, falling leaves or clouds moving – keep the camera completely still (use a locked tripod). Viewers will see the movement you want to show and won’t be distracted by the camera moving.
It’s usually best to keep the camera still when you’re showing important details and facial expressions. If a character is moving and you want a closeup, it’s easiest if you plan your sequence so that they pause at the point in the action when you’ll need to cut to the closeup.
People can move in various different directions: left to right (‘along the X axis’), up or down (‘along the Y axis’), towards or away from the camera (‘the Z axis’). All of these have different meanings. Moving closer builds involvement (or threat); moving left to right is ‘natural’ for a main character on a journey; moving upwards suggests a struggle. So if a character is moving diagonally upwards from left to right – like Rocky running up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – they’re heroically overcoming a challenge. Moving diagonally downwards, on the other hand, suggests uncontrolled, headlong flight.
Moving the camera
The coolest camera moves are where the camera itself moves. These tracking, arc or crane shots look more interesting than shots where the camera stays in one place and pans (turns) sideways or tilts up or down.
In tracking shots, the camera itself moves forwards, backwards or sideways. You can track in (move forwards) to move through a space, to build intensity in a closeup, to follow a character, or to show what a they’re seeing (a point of view shot). A track out (backwards) can reveal more of a scene, or a character can follow the moving camera. This will take practice, as inexperienced actors or presenters tend to walk too fast.
Tracking shots usually look better if you zoom out or use a wide angle lens or adapter (especially if you’re using the camera handheld). You’ll be able to get closer, so the shot will look more dramatic and camera shake will be less obvious.
You can use a sideways tracking shot or crab to scan across a scene or to travel alongside a moving subject. But if you’re using a DSLR, be careful – fast sideways movement can cause a rolling shutter effect which distorts the image.
If you can borrow a wheelchair, a trolley or skateboard your tracking shots will be smoother. You can also put the camera in a carrier bag with a hole cut out for the lens.
If you want to do it the pro way you can use mechanical stabiliser like a Steadicam or Glidecam – a balanced rig that smooths out your body movements – an electronic gimbal stabiliser (easier to learn), or a system like the Glidetrack which lets you run the camera on rails.
You could also try an arc shot which moves in a circle around the subject. This is difficult to do but is a great way of showing the whole space, or all the characters in a group, without cutting between them.
Feeling ambitious? You could try sequence shots, where you use continuous camera movement instead of editing the shot. You have to plan your shot in a lot of detail. There are some great sequence shots in the Soviet/Cuban film I Am Cuba; more recently, the German thriller Victoria tells a whole feature-length story in one take.
Crane shots move the camera vertically, above or across the action. You can buy jibs – some of them, for small cameras, are fairly inexpensive – but they are big and cumbersome to transport. With phones and lightweight cameras, you can shoot crane shots by mounting a handheld stabiliser on a boom pole.
You used to have to hire a helicopter to get good aerial shots, but this has got much more affordable with drones. Good drone shots take skill, though, and you need to be careful about safety. There are a lot of legal restrictions on them which vary between countries and states.
I teach all kinds of people to make films. I provide training for businesses, arts organisations, nonprofits and education. I’ve worked on film education projects with Apple Education, the British Film Institute, Film Education, Film: 21st Century Literacy and many more. My publications include Making Movies Make Sense and Editshots.