Unique Lens: 4 Untraditional Cinematography Techniques

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This is a guest column by Aaron Foster.

When thinking of what goes into making a film, three aspects are typically considered key to the layperson: direction, acting and cinematography.

How a film is shot has such a strong effect on how the story is perceived and how the characters develop. Sometimes it’s in extremely subtle ways, while other times it’s much more blunt and in your face.

Interesting Techniques

By now, many people are familiar with the concept of depth of field and mainstream techniques like the Steadicam. But there are older styles of shots that, while may have fallen out of favor, provide an interesting and unique perspective.

The Dolly Zoom

The dolly zoom, also known as a zolly or vertigo shot, uses interesting properties of the camera lens itself to throw off the viewer.

When using a wide-angle lens, the area behind the subject appears to be very far away. Conversely, a telephoto lens seems to bring the background closer to the subject.

Combining these attributes with a dolly push in or pull out makes everything about the subject shrink or grow around them. This is usually used to show extreme discomfort or dramatic punctuation of an action.

Forced Perspective

Forced perspective is another effect in which many people are intimately familiar. If you have ever seen a photo of someone “holding up” the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you’ve experienced forced perspective.

This techniques uses the way the background of an image looks relative to the subject. This is most apparent in modern cinema with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Instead of using CGI to change the relative height of the hobbits and dwarfs to the other characters, they were placed sometimes several feet away from each other, with the camera being positioned in such a way to make it look as though everyone on screen was right next to each other.

Slow/Fast Motion

Determining which frame rates and shutter angles a sequence is shot can have a dramatic effect on the feeling of the scene.

While most films are shot at 24 frames per second, there are exceptions within the film itself. Shooting at higher frame rates leads to slower motion, and slower frame rates makes everyone on screen seem to move faster.

Meanwhile, shooting scenes too far under 24 frames per second gives off a look like an old Charlie Chaplin film: stuttery, with characters moving in a slightly unnatural way.

The film Mad Max: Fury Road used undercranking by shooting many scenes at 22-23 frames per second, which leads to a much more subtle effect. This small difference can make characters seem to run faster or fights to have a more staccato nature.

Environmental Cameras

This could be anything from a small camera like a GoPro placed on or in an object, to security camera feeds or a character’s “personal” camera.

What makes these “non-professional” cameras shine is their ability to integrate seamlessly into the story when used correctly.

Audiences were not bothered by the cinematography of Paranormal Activity, even though it used a prosumer level camera because it made sense that what the characters were recording shouldn’t look like it was professionally shot. Hardcore Henry is another interesting example of using cameras in a unique way. This movie was shot entirely from a first-person perspective using only GoPros.

These environmental cameras have the added benefit to be held by the actors. This helps to develop a sense of intimacy with the character that a traditional camera placement can have trouble establishing.

 

Aaron Foster is a Phoenix-based filmmaker and photographer. He has worked on projects ranging from short films to commercials.

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