Lenses and ShotsEvery director’s greatest wish is that his vision, which includes the look of the film, is actualized on the big screen.  But the fact is, filmmaking is a collaborative medium, and though a director has a lot of power, he must rely on other members of his crew to bring his vision to life.  Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to lighting scenes and choosing the right kind of lens to maximize various shots.  A well-lit and well-shot film can elevate even the most ordinary material by providing a visual feast for audiences to fix their eyes on.

During the making of a film, a director will experience moments in which the director of photography has lit a scene in a way that is very different from how he imagined.  Often times, the lighting will exceed the director’s expectations, and make him see the scene in an entirely new way.  Other times, obstacles to lighting a scene may present new opportunities for a director, especially a filmmaker who isn’t afraid to improvise and adapt to circumstances.  For example, let’s say lights are set up in a tree outside a bedroom window, and the actual scene takes place inside the room.

A sudden gust of wind or a storm may cause the lights to start moving, which can play havoc with the lighting scheme in the scene.  Rather than wait hours for the wind or storm to die down, an enterprising director can add audio effects that simulate a storm, and shoot exterior shots of the swaying tree.  Of course, this would only apply to a film that incorporates some element of mystery or suspense, as swirling lights and trees shaking in the night are conventional aspects of these types of films.

The point is, unexpected issues with lighting can work to a director’s advantage if he’s willing to rethink a scene and incorporate new ideas.  This is also true in instances in which lighting a scene proves too costly or ambitious.  A director must be willing to jettison a “dream shot,” in order to adhere to the shooting schedule and budget.

Lens Advice

Let’s face it, lensing is a very personal matter when it comes to directing.  Imagine spending hours on a shot and it still doesn’t film the way you expected.  Perhaps you wanted a close-up in an exterior shot hazed with fog, with the background blurred out.  You decide to use a 105 mm lens, but discover that you’ve cut off too much of the shot.  Unfortunately, you can’t dolly the camera back to increase the depth of field, so the DP suggests you use a 55 mm lens, which theoretically should widen the frame.  But the result, unfortunately, is that the background now appears in high-relief, which robs the audience’s attention from what’s happening in the actual frame.  An inquisitive or frustrated director would most likely wonder why his DP didn’t continue using the 105 mm lens and just adjust the focal depth with a zoom function.

The reason for the DP’s decision is that, while zoom lenses are ideal for creating a crisp image with very little blur, they do not alter the perspective of whatever is being shot.  Consider this example: A woman sits on a bench ten feet in front of a skyscraper, and three feet away from a camera.  In a normal close shot without a zoom lens, it’s quite likely that the camera will capture the woman and the skyscraper in the background.

If the woman moves back five feet and the camera moves forward, it will still capture her fully in a close-up, but the frame will hold far less of the skyscraper in the background.  The reason for this is that the perspective of the shot has been altered, which transforms the size of the shot.  Now let’s bring back the zoom lens.  Note that in the previous scenario, when the woman moved back, the camera also had to move forward to capture as much of the woman and her background as possible.  A zoom lens changes all that, because the camera doesn’t have to move, so the perspective isn’t altered.  Distance changes result in perspective changes.  If you think of a camera as analogous to a pair of eyes, you’ll realize that as we approach or retreat from an object, our perspective changes.  But imagine if you possessed the power to zoom your eyes on an object without having to move closer.

Zoom lenses offer value in live-feeds, such as those involving breaking news when it may be impossible to get close to an event.  They’re also helpful when you’re shooting in a confined space that gives you little room to maneuver.  But they’re ineffective in narrative stories that require subtlety and nuance.  A zoom lens becomes a distraction that pulls an audience out of an emotional moment, or a moment of intimacy between two characters.

That’s why the dolly track was invented: to allow directors to move in or pull back from a scene without losing background visuals which may enhance or contrast what is going on in the foreground.  Another weakness of the zoom lens is the fact that it only provides an “in-and-out” directional, meaning there’s no option for a side shot of any kind.  Again, there is no substitute for a well laid-out dolly track, which gives you multiple options for how to shoot a scene.  As a director, you may be asking yourself, “What’s the big deal?”  Lens choice is not the end-all be-all of directing, and if a director is having trouble with a zoom lens, just move the camera in or out to achieve the desired effect.

While this objection may be true, the real issue is a philosophical one, related to what a director wants the audience to see when a scene is played.  This is known as depth of field, and it can have a profound effect on the tone and mood of a film.  Shallow focus refers to a scene in which there’s only one major object in focus, and the background is blurred.  Deep focus refers to a technique in which everything within the scene, foreground and background, are in clear focus, forcing the audience to follow multiple things happening at once.

In the example involving the 105 mm lens versus the 55 mm lens, the differences are stark in terms of depth of field perception.  With the 105 mm, the background is brought into closer proximity, but the image is blurred.  The objects in the foreground are more crisp, clear and detailed.  With the 55 mm, the images are less crisp, and details are harder to pick up.  Shift down to a 28 mm lens, and you widen the perspective and create deep focus imagery.

Keep in mind that movement within a frame will change depending on which lens you use.  For example, if you use a long lens to film a fox loping through the woods hunting a deer, the two animals will appear in high-relief, while the background and foreground are out of focus.  This has the effect of making it appear as if the two animals are isolated in the woods, and heightens the intensity of the pursuit.  A wider lens that pushes closer to the fox will sharpen the background and foreground, and the movement will feel quicker as a result.  Directors have a multitude of options when it comes to lenses, and some experimentation may be needed before settling on the right shot.  Stay on top of your DP when he makes a lens change, and talk through the effect this change will have on the scene.

Set Behavior

While lens choice and shot selection are all key aspects of directing, the mood and efficiency of a set are vital if you wish to achieve success.  What constitutes a harmonious set?  The short answer is, you.  A director is equal parts general, shrink, motivator, counselor, parent, and life coach.  If you want to earn the respect of your cast and crew, talk to them with kindness and ask them to do things for you in a way which shows how much you value their efforts.  The characteristics that define your behavior at home will not change when you arrive on a film set.

So if you’re impatient, rude and obstinate away from the set, expect those qualities to dog you throughout your film shoot.  While the stereotype of a director is of a screaming madman who demands utter perfection and nothing less, a gentle demeanor can accomplish the same thing.  Observing basic rules of politeness like saying “please” and not raising your voice are powerful motivators.

It’s no secret that subordinates respond more readily to a kind voice than a raised one.  This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t exert your authority to get things done.  Just be mindful that yelling a request instead of asking in a normal voice can make the difference between a crew that will go to war for you, and one that will hate your guts and give minimal effort.  If your personality is volatile, you can still get your cast and crew to make a great film, but chances are you’ll waste a lot of time arguing and fighting, and lose the respect of people who may not want to work with you again.

Learn the personalities of your actors, and you’ll be able to run a set conducive to their needs.  Some actors like a lot of direction and want to talk about every aspect of a scene, whereas other actors prefer to find the truth of a scene on their own.  If you’re making a dark drama, maybe the trick to keeping everyone loose is to joke around a lot to relieve the stress of the work.  Attune yourself to the needs of your cast and crew and you stand a good chance of creating a happy work place.

Endless Shooting Schedule

No matter how well you control your set, there’s no escaping the rigors of a long shooting schedule.  Any obstacle on a long shoot can trigger doubt, despair and depression.  A week of bad weather that forces you to shoot alternate scenes can remind you of the long slog that your film has become.  Gone are the memories of those euphoric first days of the shoot when your energy was at a peak, your ideas were flowing, and your actors were giving award-worthy performances.  Now you’ve hit the wall, and you simply cannot muster the enthusiasm to shoot another hour more.  Try not to panic, because all of this is normal on long shoots.  The physical weariness is just your body needing rest, after all; it just isn’t built to be “on” for weeks without breaking down.

The psychological toll is also normal, as your mind transitions into thinking of directing as work, instead of something you really love doing.  As with every occupation, part of directing involves craft, the nuts and bolts of putting the work together; and another part involves art, the creative high of working with brilliant actors and watching magic unfold.  You have to embrace both aspects of your profession.  The human mind isn’t made to be creative 100 percent of the time; it needs routine to even things out.  And the “down” time allows your imagination to recharge itself, so that when art is needed, you are ready and able to call upon the creativity that makes the whole thing worthwhile.