Don’t be fooled into thinking there’s a formula for filming a scene. It might seem like all you need is an establishing shot, a static medium shot and maybe a few reverse-shots thrown in to add a little spice. And that’s great if you’re filming a cable news show or a sitcom in 1993.
Directing the Camera
Hopefully the director knows that selfies are not the highest possible form of camera work. In fact, there are so many different cinematography techniques that it can be tempting just to make every scene a simple shot and reverse-shot combination. After all, what’s easiest is usually best, right? Well, think about how many times you’ve watched something and wished there were a LESS visually interesting way to tell that story. Nothing good was ever easy.
Lens Choices, Angles and Blocking
If you have a little more ambition than that, then take the time to think about all the different options for every shot. Do you want the character to dominate the scene by taking up most of the frame, or is there something else that the viewer should be focusing on? Is the character facing front, looking off to the side, sitting in profile or so close to the camera that we can see the pores on their face?
Different lenses can give you completely different versions of the same shot. A wider lens will make the character look smaller along with the other objects in the frame. A longer lens will bring the background and foreground closer together. And if a character is supposed to be looking in a certain direction, where will the camera be placed in relation to that? Pointing that wider lens at a downward angle will make the character seem small and insignificant, if your director likes to play God. Sure, this may seem like a lot to handle all at once but this is what the audience will actually see in the final version. So think about the focal length of the lens, the position of characters and props and the angle of the camera in relation to the story you want to tell.
Unless your director is just reading the scene for the first time on set, there’s no need to film every possible shot. On top of the fact that doing this will probably waste a lot of time and set the production behind schedule (and over budget), the filmmaker has hopefully taken the time to understand what the visual focus of each scene should be.
Maybe there’s even a storyboard and shot list to remind everyone that the knife on the kitchen table is just there to slice bread, meaning there’s no need to shoot a 30-second close-up of the character gripping the knife. Now, if the character is going to do something important with that knife, such as threaten her unfaithful husband with it or practice to fulfill her lifelong dream of becoming a Benihana chef – then, sure, some added focus on her holding the knife will help the story. Consider the purpose of the important elements in the shot, and then plan the shots accordingly. Again, doing this ahead of time isn’t going to drain the creative energy out of the production. It will simply assure your underpaid cast and crew that there is a coherent vision for the project.