Watching a well directed movie is a real pleasure when it comes to cinematography. It is a really good source to learn from, especially if there is the option to watch behind the scenes stuff! In this article I want to share something about watching movies with the intention to learn cinematography.
When I started out as a photographer, I didn’t really know how to create a good photo, even though I knew some of the basics. I joined an online photo community and spent a lot of time trying to learn from other people’s photos, as well as their comments on mine, which helped quite a bit. Thing is, there were also a lot of beginners like me posting photos for comments, actually most of the images were not very good. This meant that I got a lot of exposure to images that were on an amateur level like mine. This kinda created a reference standard for me, without realising it.
My photography didn’t improve much.
The turning point for me came when I stopped viewing average photos and turned my focus toward the images of excellent photographers. I also stopped scrolling through hundreds of images as they all had different styles and goals, this brought about a bit of confusion. I started narrowing it down to only one or two photographers that I really liked. During this process I realized that something about their images appealed to me, a specific style. So I further narrowed down their portfolios to focus only on a few images. One of these photographers was a wedding photographer, so I started to try and recreate some of his images with the same kind of style and feel regarding DOF, lighting, composition, focal length, etc. I have learned a lot through this and it brought about a huge improvement in my photography. What actually happened was that I started to learn about visual vision and gathering the knowledge to create it. To cut it short, when we want to accomplish something, then we need to have a vision of what we want to achieve and then develop the skills to execute it.
All this are the same for watching films. Narrow 4-5 scenes down in a film, even less, then study and try to recreate them. After a while this info creates a way of thinking when planning for a scene, the right frame of mind so to speak, our brain composes the scene without us even really concentrating on it.
So what I am trying to suggest is, don’t spend time watching average or substandard films to learn from, when you are still on diapers. You can’t learn to walk properly when you look at the crawling style of those in diapers around you. Yes there is a time to watch amateur movies, to see what could’ve been different and improved upon, but I do not suggest this when you start out on the journey. How will we know how to improve something if we don’t know how to improve it. How for example can we compose a scene better, if we don’t know the rule of thirds? Or further improve the composition if we don’t know the golden ratio, and when and how to break it? We can’t break the rules of we don’t know them. Well directed movies helps a lot in learning how to walk.
There are two quite important tools you need if you want to learn from movies:
- TV remote
First sit down and think about what you struggle with in filming. Now concentrate only on that when watching a movie. Say for example you struggle with over the shoulder shots, then only focus on that. As soon as there is a conversation between two people, then pause the movie with every change of angle and analyse: establishing shot of the characters, frame size regarding focal length, camera angle, camera height, framing ration regarding speaker and listener, when is the listener excluded from framing, the lighting etc. As soon as you get a hold of these basics, then start studying how to light them. After this you can go into 3 or 4 person conversation scenes.
If you struggle with say lighting, then narrow it down to 1 or 2 scene types, be it lighting a living room, a hallway or a person. Again, when watching a movie, freeze such frames and analyse and reverse engineer them. We don’t have to go into geomathescientifigorous calculations. Is it soft or hard light? Where does it come from? What kind of light source would create it? What mood does it create? What diffusion is involved? Is there negative fill? Where might the lights be positioned in relation to the actor/subject? Color temperature?
Now we might not have access to a bunch of lighting gear to practice with, but sometimes we don’t need it. If we want to learn how to frame over the shoulder shots, then we don’t need lighting, just a camera and lens. If you have only one or two lights, then practice composing small objects like a watch and wallet on a table with good basic composition, exposure, camera movement, etc. When you are successful, then start altering it to a more interesting setup like creating evening light, different composition, mood, depth, etc.
Some theory. The brain builds a library of everything we perceive. It builds a ‘vocabulary’. It records and store whatever we perceive and the experience associated with it. Whenever we plan a frame, then our brain is like a search engine, it quickly gives us possible options from everything it has in store. Like a Google search engine. So our brain needs a high quality library to choose from, so what we feed our brain’s library with is extremely important. A large library is important, but it needs high quality content. When we sit down to create something and get thinking about it, then we’ll have very good options that comes to mind, so to speak, for framing, lighting, mood etc.
Sometimes an idea might come real quick and sometimes it might take a bit longer, our brain either acting like a solid state drive or spinning drive, depending on the scene(ario). We need to learn at least 2-3 lighting setups that will work for a particular type of scene. Let’s say someone is sitting at a desk late at night reading a document, then we need to know 2-3 basic techniques for light such a scene.
One thing I did learn from being part of a photo community is that there are many possibilities to photograph something. Every setup brings about its own look and feel. There are also wrong ways to do it though. There are many methods of folding a paper plane that will fly. But there are also many wrong ways to fold a paper plane. We first learn the basics; a paper plane need wings and balance. So we might learn 2-3 ways to fold a paper plane. We can then get more creative in folding something different, either by adding or taking away something. We can also adapt it according to the environment it will be used in; maybe 2 folding techniques for indoor flight, and 2 others for outdoor use. Same with lighting setups. We first learn the basics, say for lighting an actor ,like 3-point lighting:
- Key Light
- Fill Light
- Hair Light
This is used as a foundation to work from. Of course there are other basic ways to light an actor, but this is not the point.
We all have a different way of seeing things, and that is also awesome. We can fold a bunch of average paper planes when we know the basics, or we can fold a bunch of extraordinary paper planes, by knowing the basics. Also start thinking outside the box – add some wind to the mix, instead of just concentrating on the paper plane.
Something else I learned from the photo community is to photograph a variety of subjects; from human to animal portraits, landscape to macro. Try to master one or two areas at a time when filming, instead of being all over the place. Over time this builds a huge library for your brain. When you have come to mastering some of them, then things get really creative, you’ll be mixing genres on a professional level, creating unique frames.
At the end of the day it is a lot of fun learning from movies! Trying to put it into practice is even more of a blast. We learn new stuff every time we pick up a camera, new creativity around every corner. Most days it feels as if I am still on diapers, still a long road ahead, but an exciting one as we learn along the way. I learned so much when I shot our very first short film and it is good to know that there are so many resources out there to learn from. Here’s some screenshots, before final color grading, from our first short film.
To wrap it up, if you want to learn from movies, then watch well directed ones and concentrate only on one or two aspects of the film. Use the remote and pause, analyse and take notes. Then go and put it into practise and try to recreate one or two scenes that is more or less doable like smaller objects or one person scenes.
Hope this helps a bit with your filming journey!