Now with pictures!
I’ve mentioned in the past that I want to talk more about camera placement. The question being: is there a right or wrong place to put the camera? I remember reading an interview with Scorsese some time back where he’s talking about William Wyler. He says that Wyler “always put the camera in the right place.” So…what’s right or wrong? Why can’t we just place the camera somewhere that a) captures all of the necessary action, b) looks more or less compositionally pleasing, and c) doesn’t show too much that is unnecessary?
When I was at the Cinequest film festival awhile back I saw a film, which will remain unnamed, that seemed to always, without fail, place the camera in the wrong spot. I mentioned this to someone after me and they said, “do you mean that the composition wasn’t good?” That’s part of it, but more so than that, I think that director and cinematographer had actually placed the mechanism in the wrong area. It wasn’t about zooming in, tilting up, panning left, or moving the actors. It was that, given the space, there was at least one location that would have made for a better placement.
Let’s look at a still from a Wyler film. Here’s one from The Desperate Hours (1955):
I think this is the right aspect ratio…though it might be slightly squeezed in. Anyway, because we’re talking more placement than pure framing, this should do the trick. If you don’t know the story of this film it’s one of the earlier true “home invasion” stories. That’s Fredric March frame right, looking across and with his hand on his wife’s shoulder. The two men closest two camera and frame left are the intruders (that’s Bogart looking at March). You’re directing this scene and you need to know a few things: 1) who is bad and who is good (and who, of the “bad” is really “badder”), 2) that there’s a child, who will play a key role in this sequence who will come out from upstairs (though I imagine if you’re director you could change where he enters from), and 3) how many people are in the scene. Of course there’s more that’s important, but that’ll do it for the time being.
Wyler, as you can see, places his camera in a low, wide-angle, emphasizing the depth of the shot (ie there’s someone very close to camera, and also someone very far, both in relative focus). What does this camera placement do better than say, if we had moved it about eight feet to the right, and looked up in the same wide view? The latter would have framed everyone more evenly. We’d be able to see almost everyone’s eyes (a good thing, right). We’d even be closer to Bogart and March – the stars.
Or, what if we placed the camera up, behind the child? He’s in the foreground, so we’d get that same depth. And we’d look down on the action below. Why not that?
I think Wyler’s camera placement is correct for a number of reasons. First, both the villain on the left and the child at the top reach the same height of the frame. They’re essentially on the same eye-level. This is important to make them visually aware of one-another. Second, our guy one the left occupies the most screen-space. He overwhelms. But his body language is nonchalant. It’s the perfect embodiment of the natural terror that takes place within the film. Third, the lamp hanging towards the middle/top of the frame acts as a nice frame divider between, basically, good and evil. Fourth, by keeping the camera angled as such, Wyler is able to keep the child on the “good” side of things (which would be negated were you to move the camera eight feet to the right as I suggested earlier).
Fifth, the eye-lines here tell the story. This is a tricky one, because it’s as much about the actors as the camera but, were you to reposition the camera, the drama of the perspectives would be irreparably shifted. Notice who is looking at whom: child at frame-left villain. Bogart at March and vice versa. Both women at March. This gives us two sources of tension, one rendered more immediate because of the looming presence (ie child and villain on left), another rendered literally more central (to the frame and the story –> Bogart and March). It also gives us the dominant figures (March, for the most part here). Lastly, it isolates the child, giving him visual credence as an unpredictable factor.
Sixth, and lastly for this post, the camera positioning gives us very dramatic angles from the railings. This serves to a) enclose the characters on the lower floor, b) echo their positioning with the vertical poles, and c) again isolate the child.
There’s much more to be said here were this a true frame analysis, but I want to keep the idea of where the camera is at the heart. We could, of course talk about characters having their back to camera, the different styles of dress, the pockets of light, etc.
Does this mean that this is the only place to put the camera? Not necessarily. But it does capture all of the necessary action in a way that allows the visual elements to tell story as much as dialogue. and in a way that’s visually interesting.
Think, if the camera is up and behind the child then he looms in frame. Everyone else below is rendered as equally weighted. If we move the camera right we lose many of the railing angles, the hanging light plays a different role and the balance of the frame again shifts. If we raise the camera we lose the “equivalency” of frame-left villain and child. If we move the camera to the other shoulder of our guy frame-left then we reposition everyone, and certainly lose the drama of the child standing overhead and daring everyone to come at him in the same way that he dares to stand out in the frame.