Setup To Film My ShotsMany directors think that the primary role of the craft of moviemaking is the shots. Bruce Beresford, a director of such films as “Driving Miss Daisy” and many others, left little doubt that he considered how the shots are planned to be absolutely crucial to the art of being a director. I spend a lot of time on this blog discussing other parts of directing; I consider them to be just as crucial, but the shots you use and how they are cut together make up a key part of a director’s job.

Now it’s time to get down to the details — the nitty-gritty — of how to plan the shots. The planning of shots and setups occur at all stages of production, often while you’re dealing with other issues.

Setups

Setup is the industry term for every time the video camera is moved and set up in another place or location. It’s a key part of making a film that comes down to three parts. The first part is how many setups you need to get the number of shots you’ve planned. The second part is how you plan these setups so that you get the maximum amount of time shooting and a minimal amount of time moving the camera around. The third part is the question of how many setups your crew can do in a day. It’s normally a question that a production manager will ask, but as a director it’ll be important to your work.

Shots

The shots come with many questions. How many shots will you need? What are they? It’s a technical, some may say mundane, matter, but it is very important because these details go a long way toward defining the look of your film in a very direct manner.

In some ways, these decisions are elementary matters, the basic grammar of film. How do we get from shot A to shot B? Just how many shots are needed so that you can cut together a sequence?

We’ll look at the sequence first. The basic sequence of shots is what every director learns early on: the wide shot, the medium shot and, of course, the close shot.

With one actor, it doesn’t exactly work because you can’t cut together a single shot. However, as you get up to a larger amount of actors (for example, five), you can cut together a scene with as few as three shots: a wide shot of all five, then a two-shot of two people and a three-shot of two actors. Those are the basics, but they actually say very little.

Just because a sequence is possible doesn’t mean that it’s attractive or creative. We’ll need to look further. Are the shots matched, or, in other words, do they bear some sort of resemblance to each other? Imagine this sequence: a close shot of an actress, then a medium or wide shot of another actress, then back to a close shot of the first. This can give the viewer a certain impression that you may or may not have intended to imply — mainly, that the first actress is much more important in the scene than the second. If you’re going to shoot medium shots and close shots, make sure to shoot medium shots and close shots of both actresses, giving a minimum of four shots for two people. If you add any extreme close-ups, then it’ll become six shots. Also, you may want to consider an establishing shot, so that brings the total to seven shots, or maybe two over-the-shoulder shots, which brings the total to eight shots. There could be, and often are, more shots, so you need to plan ahead of time what shots you want and need.

That question goes to what message you’re trying to convey and how complexly you need to convey it. You’ll have to think of not just the final shots, but also the shots you’ll need to make choices about editing when you finally make it to the editing room.

For example, a director may think that he or she wants a tracking shot of a passionate couple that ends with a close shot of the man and will shoot exactly that without the move. However, in the editing room the film’s editor may want to intercut a shot of the woman. The editor may also want a shot of both members of the couple without the move. Since the director was so sure of what he wanted, the option the editor wanted isn’t there. In the business, they call this cutting the camera.

Some directors are so sure of their abilities that they don’t take these shots; either they forget and don’t think about doing so or they just don’t think they’ll need them. You don’t want to be one of these directors. Make sure to write down in advance all of the shots you want and remember the basic grammar so that you don’t limit yourself in the all-important editing room.

Unless you’re very lucky, you’ll have just a limited amount of time on the set. While you may like to spend all afternoon shooting the same scene over and over, there’s just not time for that in reality. If you try to take eight to ten different shots of a short scene, with all of the fluffs and time to move the cameras, you’ll exhaust your actors and test your producer’s patience. What you’ll have to do is find a middle ground, somewhere between giving yourself as many options as possible and doing the bare minimum. The number of shots isn’t the only problem; we also have to worry about variety in the form of height, angle and size.

For another example, let’s go back to that passionate couple. This time they’re sitting on a sofa, not sure if they’ll end up in the bedroom that we have set up in the background. In order to accentuate the bedroom to your audience, you need to make sure that they can see it; however, if you shoot from a low angle, the back of the sofa will cut off the door to the bedroom. The audience may not get the subtle hint that you’re trying to send. So in this example, you’ll need a wide shot that includes the two people, the sofa and the door to the bedroom behind them in the background. All this would need to be shot from a semi-high angle. Then you could use a crane or dolly to help you, with the camera lowering as it pushes in on the two-shot of the romantic couple. This combination shot gives you in one setup, the two needed shots – a wide shot and a medium two-shot. The two-shot from a lower angle will create a more romantic feeling then shooting down on them. However, if they were lying on the bed, looking down on them with a high two-shot could be more effective.

For your next shots, you’ll want some kind of individual shots of each of them, so that you can cut back and forth between them as they talk about their feelings and get closer to moving to the bedroom. In this scenario, the question you’ll have to answer is whether or not these will be two single shots or two over-the-shoulder shots. Here’s what to think about in this case. You won’t be able to get extreme close using over-the-shoulder shots because you’ll have to keep a piece of the shoulder of the person in the foreground. If you want to go the route of a passionate tight shot, you’ll probably need to make it two tight shots.

However, if you’re thinking more along the lines of continuing the relationship between these two characters, two over-the-shoulder shots might be more appropriate. If your scene is on the short side, you may even play in the medium two-shot that you came to from the high cover shot that opened the scene. However, that would result in having no way to cut into the scene if one of the actors messes up his or her line, and you’ll have no way to change the pace or timing of the scene in the editing room, because you don’t have any other shots to use. In this scenario, your best bet might be to compromise and use a high shot, moving into a medium two-shot, followed by two over-the-shoulder shots or two singles. That would be three shots in all.

Now, what about a scenario where the lovers get off the sofa and head towards the bedroom? How would you plan your shots in that case? Of course, there are many choices. The first is that you could move the camera around until it shoots from the doorway of the bedroom with the couple on the sofa in the background (this is called a reverse shot), and then, when they stand up and start to head towards the bedroom, they will come together on camera, getting larger and larger until they under over the camera and the shot ends. Or you could start with the same high shot you began with, have them go into the background, keeping them in sight all the way into the bedroom and onto the bed, but keeping them small in the shot so it’ll look discreet.

Another option is to the track them with the camera as they stand up and walk towards the bedroom, paying careful attention to the romantic glances and soft talking that you most likely couldn’t hear from either of the other shots (or at least would not realistically have been able to hear). A final option would be to have the sofa in a medium shot, letting the couple go out of the frame and shooting until you hear the bedroom door close off-screen. Any of these choices will work, but you have to keep in mind the effect of the different shots, the effect you want to create and the amount of time it will take to make each shot, as well as how many options you want to have in the cutting room and how many options the editor and the producer will want in the cutting room. It’s a lot to think about, but planning ahead will make this easier.

Of course, it’s not just any old option that you want to have in the final edit. Some shots just don’t cut together well. Different-size shots, different angles and different heights are the grammar of shots, to which you’ll have to pay attention. Like any language, film language has its own rules. Some of these rules can be broken by innovators, but they are meant to be obeyed by beginners. An example is cover shots, also referred to as wide shots. Of course, they are more than that — they are shots used to cover yourself, shots that allow something to go wrong, as well as for everything to work out perfectly. What could go wrong? Very often, it’s the problem of getting two shots to cut together in the way that you want. Two shots often won’t work together no matter what you want. This can be for a wide variety of reasons, but let’s look at two of them before we end this lesson.

Grammar — It’s just a rule of basic grammar that you can’t cut together two shots of the same person if both the shots are the same size. The grammatical problem is fixed by using two or three different shots like a wide one, a medium one and a close one.

Mismatching — Mismatching is when the same series of lines or scenes are played repeatedly in different-size shots, then actors, directors, continuity people or camera operators make mistakes. For example, a hat that was taken off on one line in the medium shot is taken off on a different line in the close-up.