The Art of Film and Video Making – Rules or No Rules?

Welcome to the movies!

Storyboard artist film use abstract art-making to distil the world around into its essential components and get to the heart of the matter. Some people could boast a good foundation in filmmaking or video production. Others merely stumbled on it, loved it and eventually became experts in their field. What perhaps started off as a hobby, soon became a full-fledged career, giving them emotional satisfaction and possibly financial freedom. No matter how you step into the amazing world of moving pictures however, at some point, sooner than later, you get into the habit of structuring your work, paying attention to details and observing certain guidelines; spoken or unspoken.

Practically everyone can conjure up a video today, what with YouTube, camcorders, camera phones, just name it; but not everyone can make an art of it. For those who can, and who continue to do this, it has become increasingly imperative to stand out as professionals. Think about it. Why, in today’s world, should anyone with a tight budget overlook the crowds and give their project to you? More likely than not, it would be because your work appeals. It is not street junk! You are creative, you help others see the world in many ways than one, and, while you are at it, you abide by the industry rules and adhere to standards.

The systematic world

Basic techniques that a cinematographer would consider typically cut across sound, camera, lighting and editing. He or she would know the importance of choosing the right microphone for dialogue, recording ambience sounds at filming locations, using light to control the mood of a video and making editing unobtrusive so that the audience can absorb its effect naturally.

Imagine yourself watching a nice movie. You are right in the middle of an interesting scene where two actors are having a heated argument. One of the actors is backing a bookshelf and the other one is backing a wall hanging. All of a sudden, without either of them moving physically, the shelf is gone and so is the hanging. Not only that, actor ‘X’ who was previously on the right-hand side of the screen is now magically on the left, while actor ‘Y’, who was formerly on the left, is now standing on the right. In this scenario, the director has broken a very basic rule- The 180 degree rule, which says that the camera(s) should remain on the same side of an imaginary line during an action. The rule is there for a reason and breaking it could lead to undesired results. In this case, the audience has subconsciously formed a mental record of where the actors are located. Crossing the line will leave that audience (i.e. you) confused.

Another basic rule says, “Do not shoot directly into the light”. In other words, don’t place your subject right in front of your source of light. Again, there’s a reason why that rule is in place and ignoring it can result in an unwanted outcome. If you want that specific background and you have another source of light that can adequately expose your subject, or, if what you are looking to achieve is a silhouette effect, your reason(s) will be well founded. If however, your desire is to see the face of an actor, for instance, and you are throwing light on their back (e.g. by placing them in front of a window), you will end up having a dark image and this will not look pleasant to your audience.

Why break the rule?

Every now and again people break the rules, and, they break these rules sometimes for baseless reasons. The chief cause, more often than not, is ignorance. Let’s take the case of a rookie videographer who has just purchased a fantastic camera and is looking forward to impressing his first client. He has even taken half his pay up-front because he is so sure that he can do a good job. After all it’s just a one-on-one interview with the company CEO. Indeed, he has practised using the new equipment in his bedroom but he lacks professional experience and he has failed to do some homework.

The recording date is finally here. The location is perfect and the respondent provides him with clean and intelligent sound bites. Even Mother Nature is kind to him. He has sufficient light and his shots are clean, or at least close to clean. Mr rookie however gets to post production only to realise that he has an audio problem. The bigger problem still is that his interviewee was only in town for the weekend. The ever-so-busy executive has since returned to his town, which is a little more than five hundred miles away. What more, the CEO’s secretary has just confirmed that his diary is filled up for another 3 months. The videographer who is now on the verge of losing a valuable client learns an important lesson from this unpleasant experience. He stops relying on his camera’s in-built microphone and plans to take an external microphone along for his next recording. But will he give more attention to lighting next time or can we assume that he will be lucky again?

Boredom is another reason why people break rules. Some people find it extremely hard sticking to one thing for such a long time. A decorator for instance can get tired of using the same colour over and over again and wake up one morning only to paint a ceiling black. “Ditch the white”, he says. “I need a breath of fresh air!”.

While there are some groundless or avoidable reasons why people deviate from the norm in filmmaking or television production, there are also some real reasons, valid enough for one to break set rules or initiate new techniques.

Factors to consider

If you wish to employ a new technique and that technique displaces an existing cinematic rule, you need to ask yourself, “Does this concept actually do something? Is there an artistic reason for me to ignore a reliable pattern?”

One of the norms in film or television is the ’30-degree rule’. This is a basic editing guideline, which says that for consecutive shots to appear seamless, the camera position must vary at least 30 degrees from its previous position. If the camera position changes less than 30 degrees, the difference between the two shots will not be substantial enough and the viewer will experience the edit as a jump in the position of the subject. This will give a jarring effect that ends up drawing attention to itself.

In movies such as ‘Serenity’, ‘Goodfellas’ and ‘Bug’, the use of jarring jump cuts suggests a gap in time, a state of agitation or delusion. However, in Jean-Luc Godard’s French movie, ‘Breathless’, jump cuts weren’t used to achieve any specific artistic purpose, at least not originally. Godard himself said that he used the jump cuts in the film mainly to get rid of scenes that made the film too long. Luckily, the film’s storyline made the technique seem like a deliberate choice. Some critics saw the jump cuts as a cinematic expression of moral and emotional disjointedness. Others felt it was a creative way of depicting the social world as meaningless.

When initiating new ideas, the second thing to consider is if the idea will appeal, not just to the originator but also to the target audience or consumer; like in the case of the decorator, this would be the homeowner. Surely it would be pointless for a decorator to go ahead and design a house to his own taste if the owner of the house is not in agreement with the decor. After all, he won’t live in that house but the homeowner will.

There will always be people who won’t like your idea and it doesn’t necessarily mean that they hate your guts or won’t eventually buy that idea. They might simply be traditionalists whose minds can’t cope with change. When half the world accepts your new concept they may suddenly think it’s a good idea and tag along. While one wouldn’t expect you to wait for this category of people, it’s still important to carefully interpret general reactions to change. Don’t be the impetuous type. If a really large percentage of your audience would not embrace your theory it could be that there truly is something wrong with it.

Thirdly, does the concept actually work? Needless to say, there is a thin line between this point and the previous one because for an idea to appeal to its target audience, in most cases it would mean that it ‘worked’. In the case of ‘Breathless’, although Godard didn’t have a good reason for using jump cuts, while in post-production the technique appealed to the producer who saw a valid purpose to it. When the film was later released, it attracted a lot of attention and paved the way for other daring producers and directors.

Becoming ‘hip’

The problem today is that some people still want to use techniques that break all guidelines but for no reason whatsoever. These erring movie or video makers don’t usually originate styles. They simply do what they see some great directors do without understanding how and why these directors used the techniques that they used. Because you see fast cutting in ‘Bourne Triology’ or shaky cam in ’24’ doesn’t mean you should go ahead and use those styles in your next project. That Woody Allen ‘broke the fourth wall’ in ‘Annie Hall’ also doesn’t mean that it is okay to break boundaries and turn your observers into participators, or, like in some cases, vice versa.

In recent years, I have seen some interviews or testimonials where the respondent is looking straight at the camera one minute and then the next minute what we see is a side profile shot of the person talking. Before you are able to determine what exactly is happening, it’s back again to the shot of the respondent looking straight at the camera. Could this mean that there are two parties listening i.e. the viewers at home and also the person who is conducting the interview? Perhaps I am just slow at catching on to this idea and some others like it, but, the truth is, nothing annoys me more than a meaningless concept, unless of course the whole idea is to portray exactly that- meaningless.

If in the case of the mixed interview shots, what we see instead is an angle shot of the respondent and then towards the end of the recording this person turns to look at the camera, it might be a bit jarring at first but I will find it easier to accept that the whole idea of the piece to camera was a deliberate act to end the message with a decisive note from the speaker. This could be a public call to action or a request for something. However, drawing my attention excessively to the editing process and leaving me to figure out what is happening visually and not content-wise is in my opinion a betrayal of my trust as a viewer.

Yes, in Godard’s famous 1960 movie he substituted dollies with wheelchairs, made use of natural light, did not seek permission to film at several locations and also made use of handheld cameras. As a director, he undoubtedly had a radical approach to things and did not fancy tradition but he also had a budget issue and this, in addition to some other things might have contributed to his choice of techniques that would ordinarily have been labelled ‘amateurish’. Deciding to be as radical as Godard without understanding him and why his film became a big success might not be a clever decision.

Rules are there to be broken, so, by all means break them but don’t over do it. If you wish to break the rules for no reason whatsoever; and I don’t expect that anyone will kill you for it, just remember that your chances are slim and the risks can be high. Filmmaking is an expensive art and hey, luck isn’t always around the corner.

Set me free!

On a final note, I must say that I hate being caged in a box and I believe, just like the old saying goes, that the only permanent thing in this world is change.

I love creative works and I’m constantly wowed by artistic minds but I will still let reason have an upper hand. When I start to make my millions and can boast of huge monetary reserves, then maybe, just maybe, I could throw all caution to the wind.

Derin is an avid writer with growing interest in filming techniques. She has a background in Broadcast Journalism and is currently a Lead Producer with Rhenium Pictures.

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