A couple of weekends ago I went on a training course to learn how to use a Canon C300. It was something I signed up for through DV Talent, the parent company of the TV job website, The Talent Manager. It was an eye-wateringly expensive course, but I had saved up and viewed it as a skills investment; I am already proficient with a DSLR 5D, but a C300 is broadcast standard – a much more complex, high quality camera. I knew that with that skill, I would stand a stronger chance of becoming a self-shooting AP in due course.
And I have to say the course was fantastic. There were only three of us, spending seven hours each day learning how to use this camera, both technically and practically. We received plenty of support and a technical reference booklet, which I know I’ll be referring to regularly in the future! In this blog, I won’t bore you with all the technical knowledge, because that’s really something you need to be shown and engage with on a practical basis, but what I will pass on is what I learned about the grammar of filming.
Let me explain what I mean by ‘grammar’. Making a film is like writing a story, but using images instead of words. So a paragraph is made up of sentences, which are made of clauses, which are made up of individual words. In a film, a scene is made up of sequences, which are made up of individual shots. So when you make a film, think about how the images you are shooting tell the story. The way a good writer tells a story defines their style; the way a good director puts together their shots defines theirs.
Take, for example, a murder mystery. Alice sat down. Her hands were shaking. What had she just seen? Could it be true? The blood, the hammer, David staring up at her, still with a faint echo of surprise in the fading twinkle of his dead eyes. She tried to drink some water but she couldn’t swallow. She didn’t want to believe it, but she knew who must have done it. And she knew that she would be next. The killer wasn’t far away…
So, imagine this as a film. You start with a mid-shot of Alice sitting down. Then a close-up of her hands shaking. A close-up of her face, emotions flitting across it. Flashback cutaways of the blood, the hammer, and David’s face. Another mid-shot of her drinking the water, drawing out to a wide of her, alone in the room, to emphasise her vulnerability. Then, to add a bit of technical knowledge to help build the mood of the film, maybe a few of the shots would be handheld and a little shaky. Maybe you would use a long lens for the close-ups to create depth of field, which makes one thing in focus but all the rest of the image blurry, and this would create a sense of tunnel vision, of concentration, drawing the eye to the one thing you want the viewer to notice.
Writing a story involves transferring the narrative of the imagination to the page, and can use narrative techniques and rhetorical devices to create a more evocative story. Film is the same, it transfers imagination to the screen and uses technical knowledge, e.g. lighting, sound, lens focus, camera angles, to create the same impression. Tech meets creativity in film, and it is crucial to have a strong understanding of both in order to create the desired effect when making a film.