How To Set Up a Film Shot

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“To me if there’s an achievement to lighting and photography in a film, it’s because nothing stands out. It all works as a piece. And you feel that these actors are in this situation and the audience is not thrown by a pretty picture or by bad lighting.” – Roger Deakins

Sometimes the subtle details make all the difference. Whenever you are setting up a shot, there are lots of things to consider before the camera ever gets taken out of its case. What will the framing be? The angle? Where is the light source? Will there be any movement?

Good cinematographers and filmmakers understand how all of these elements balance one another out and greatly influence the audience’s viewing experience and ultimately their overall reaction to the content. So whether you're shooting your own short, web series, reel, or audition, here are some questions and tips to make sure the end product is perfect.

What the heck is “framing” exactly?
The term “framing” refers to the placement of elements within the border of a film frame, but it still applies in the digital world as well, i.e. what you see through the viewfinder.

Okay, got it. My picture’s up. So where should I look?
A frame is most attractive when its subjects are composed along imaginary lines, which divide the image into thirds, both vertically and horizontally. This is called the “Rule of Thirds," and many cameras have a grid option so you can see these lines in the viewfinder to frame your shot. It’s pretty cool that something mathematical can be applied to something as subjective as photography.

Rules are made to be broken, right?
You don’t need to perfectly align everything with the thirds of the image. It's more of a guideline. Just make sure your main subject isn't always in the direct middle of the frame. For landscapes, keep the horizon aligned with the upper or lower third of the image. For subjects, put them on either side of the shot. This tends to make landscape compositions more vibrant and give your subjects a much-needed sense of direction.

Hold it right there, Wiseguy. What are some different types of shots?

  • Close-up shot: A very “tight” frame. A close-up of a person is generally just the face. A close-up of an object would include the object alone, or part of the object.
  • Medium shot: A frame that includes much of the object or person. The character might be shown from the waist up, for example.
  • Long shot: A frame that includes the entire object or person along with some of the surrounding environment.

How do I make sure the lighting doesn’t look like crap and screw up my shot?
Well, it all depends on the specific scene. If it’s supposed to look like “real life,” keep it natural and clean. If you want something more stylized, then experiment and go nuts. Lighting, like other elements of composition helps you stress the importance of subjects, while taking away attention from objects that hold lesser weight to the overall shot. Light and shadows can also create mood, draw your attention to a specific area, create a third dimension, or bring out the texture of an object.

Matthew Perkins is a filmmaker living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @_MatthewPerkins.