Film ProductionMovement within a scene in a film or play occurs whenever a person or animal physically moves from one place to another. This movement may be in the form of a walk, a mad dash, a run, a long sprint, or even crawling on the floor; but as long as the character travels even one inch, that is defined as movement.

Once a director understands the concept of movement, he is then able to think of optimal ways in which to track that movement with the camera. The manner in which a camera follows an actor’s movement can convey a myriad of different moods and tones to the audience. That’s why it’s important that a filmmaker is aware of some of the rules, guidelines and potential camera setups involved in tracking movement.

The Rules of Movement

Some directors fall in love with movement even when the scene doesn’t call for it.  In general, the camera should move to track a moving character, but should be still when a character is still in order to frame the scene for maximum clarity.  When an actor does move, the camera must match the pace of the actor.  If the camera moves faster than the actor or slower than the actor, it can distract and confuse the audience.

In scenes in which there are more than one set of actors in different parts of the same location, the camera should not move back and forth between them, unless the actors from each set are moving towards each other.  The best way to show the audience these two sets of actors is to cut to each part of the location where they are standing. However, if a director has developed a signature style that involves whip-pans, sudden tracking shots or tilts, then those techniques would be acceptable.

In general, a director should avoid moving the camera unless it’s motivated by the movement of the actors within a scene.  Though this may seem self-evident, many inexperienced directors violate this basic rule.  Instead of holding a shot and allowing movement within a scene, some young directors will pan across a scene, and as a result, they lose intricate details within the scene and, worse yet, they pull the audience out of the film.  To illustrate this point with an example, think about a group of still photos.  As a director, you could pan across the photos, but you would lose the details that make each photo special.

But if you cut from one still to the other, you give the viewer a chance to take in the entire image, resulting in a deeper experience. Take another example.  Let’s say a director fixes his camera on the banks of a river, where a drop of water is about to fall on the roots of a tree.  The droplet falls; the movement within the scene is captured by a still camera.  But if the director had decided to move the camera across the banks of the river, there’s little chance that the falling droplet would have been seen by the audience.

It can be argued that both shots are effective depending on what the director intends, but the still camera would certainly provide more subtle details to the viewing audience.  There’s an old saying that all rules are made to be broken.  This is true, and certainly, a director has the right to move his camera in any manner that fits his style.  It is, however, advisable for every director to map out camera movement prior to live filming to maximize the effectiveness of each shot.

Movement Tips

  1. Many directors abhor the practice of cutting in order to transition from one scene to the next.  They would rather keep the scenes flowing through movement, but one of the best ways to justify that movement is to make sure your actors move at the same time as the camera.  To avoid arbitrary camera and actor movement, let your actors say or do things within the scene that justify the movement.  As an example, imagine a scenario that features an arguing couple.  The woman can’t stop moving, but the man stands in one place and doesn’t move.  A director could shoot a master shot of the scene and a few single shots of each actor, then edit the scene to cut back and forth between the man and woman.  An alternate way to shoot the scene is to have the woman move around the man within the scene, which triggers the camera to track her movement.  Another way would be to shoot both actors, but to focus on each actor as they speak.  In this type of shot, the director can add reaction shots, in which one actor’s face expresses emotion in response to something the other has said.  As a director, you can also create an intense scene by including both the man and woman in full camera view, while still getting your close-ups.  The traditional over-the-shoulder shot is also effective in terms of ramping up the emotion and covering the reaction of each actor in the scene.  The next time you’re watching a movie, take note of how many times this kind of scene technique is used.  To make this scene work, you need to rehearse your actors to ensure that they nail their timing.  It’s almost a given that the scene will require multiple takes.  Actor movement always requires precision because the camera has to know when to stop, when to move, and what angle best captures the emotion.  The shots used in this scene are referred to as “combination shots,” as you are combining two-shots, close-ups and tracking shots within the scene.
  2. Another thing to keep in mind involves the exit of an actor from a scene.  When an actor leaves a scene, you must know in advance whether you will follow her out by tracking her movement with the camera, or let her leave out of frame and keep the camera still.  If you opt to follow the actor out with the camera, you have to make sure that the next scene matches the character’s exit.  For example, a woman leaves a restaurant in a huff after an argument with her husband, and the camera follows her.  In the next scene, she has to be entering another place, or the transition will be jarring.  If you choose to let the same woman leave the restaurant without the camera following her, you will have more choices as to how to introduce her in the next scene since you won’t have to worry about matching her movement. Again, it’s a stylistic choice, but door number two (letting the actor leave frame without the camera moving) will save you time in the editing room.
  3. There’s one final thing to remember when it comes to editing:  always strive to film scenes that allow you to cut from a tracking shot to another tracking shot, and from a still shot to another still shot.

Which Camera Type Should I Use?

When actors move within a scene, a director’s choices are limited if the camera is mounted on a tripod, as opposed to a handheld camera.  The reason is self-evident: A handheld camera gives the director more options in terms of where he can place the camera to capture movement.  However, a common filmmaking axiom suggests that directors should avoid cutting from a stationary camera that tracks movement to a handheld camera that tracks movement.  Remember, though, that while a handheld camera frees you in terms of movement, it cannot be laid down on a dolly track to keep the shot from looking  “jumpy.”

But it can take hours of setup for a stationary camera to run on a dolly track, whereas a handheld camera is usable without having to wait for a long setup.  And with advancements in the width of many lenses, the lightweight handheld is ideal for capturing realistic movement that makes the audience feel as if they’re inside the movie or the television screen. If you’re agonizing over which camera to use when it comes to filming movement, consult with your director of photography, who is better equipped to give you all the pros and cons of using a handheld over a mounted camera.  But if you decide to go handheld, there are a few rules you should observe.

Rules for Using Handheld Cameras

Because handheld cameras are adept at capturing intricate details, you have to make sure to avoid moving the camera without moving the actors within your scene.  For example, if you’re tracking a cantering horse as you run, the movement will look seamless on screen.  But if the camera is moving and the horse is still, the effect will be jarring.

A second rule to observe is to avoid the use of long lenses with a handheld camera, even in instances in which the camera is still.  The reason is that any shakiness on the part of the DP or camera operator will affect how you edit the handheld shot with the shots from a camera mounted on a tripod.

Preparing the Look With Shot Lists, Images and Storyboards

With all this talk of movement within your scenes, it’s imperative that you plan the entire look of your movie before you shoot one foot of film.  There are several ways to do this, including creating a shot list, writing scenes into the script, drawing the shots, or using still photos you’ve taken to convey the image of each scene.  Whichever method you choose, you’ll save time and stress if you complete the preparation before you get on the set.

Many directors have tried to improvise the entire look of the film, but discover that when they arrive on set, all their great ideas and concepts have dissipated from their memory. Remember, just writing down “we need a wide shot” or “closeups here” for your scenes isn’t enough, because there is a wide variety of both kinds of shots, and one size doesn’t fit all. The more specific you are with images and your shot list, the more options you give yourself if something goes wrong while you are filming.

This is why storyboards are an effective tool for you to consider.  A storyboard is a visual representation of your entire film, broken down into one drawing or digital image per scene.  Some directors, especially those involved in the production of an animated film, are hyper-specific and storyboard every single scene in their film, including scenes without dialogue and transition scenes.  Other directors are content to storyboard only major scenes and beats, or complex scenes such as an action sequence.  Scenes that feature extensive special effects and include a number of different props also benefit from detailed storyboards.

If you’re a director with some skill in drawing or sketching, a storyboard facilitates conversations you’ll have with your DP, the prop department, your art director and your production designer: the key crew members, most responsible for the overall look and “feel” of your film.  But even if you can’t draw, you can use crude stick figures to suggest how you see each scene.

If there’s a drawback to storyboarding, it’s the fact that directors who lack drawing ability will give up altogether without attempting to put any image on the page.  Another slight drawback is that storyboards can’t convey the depth and precision of the lenses a director will use for a scene.  But as a planning tool, whether with crude sketches or computer-generated simulations, storyboards are a valuable weapon in a director’s arsenal.