13 March 2013

4 Techniques to Improve Student Cinematography

Shaky cameras, extremely lengthy shots, and constant point-of-view medium shots plague nearly every inexperienced filmmaker. I tried a variety of things to force kids to use better cinematography technique, but only recently have I seen any success.

1. Storyboarding
I always hated storyboarding, and avoided assigning it to my students because of that. But I have since changed my ways for two reasons: (1) while storyboarding is mostly pointless for most shots, it's crucial for special effect shots in professional filmmaking; (2) storyboarding forces kids to think abstractly about where to place actors in a shot and how to move the camera.

So, I've found success in storyboarding by showing them scenes from movies which they have to storyboard. Then I show them simple shots from movies, and the students imagine how the action might have moved. Finally, they come up with their own chase scene idea (from writing prompts a different day) and storyboard one part of it. Students will still complain, and many drawings will still be awful, but it's a lot more beneficial to their cinematography later.

2. Scavenger Hunt
Before I let the students loose on a cinematography project, I send them out on a shot scavenger hunt. It's basically a list of shots they can get around the school, including establishing shots, close-ups, dolly shots, etc. It forces them to see that there are more ways to capture a scene than a medium, shoulder-height POV shot.

3. Screenplays
I used to let students come up with their own story to tell, but that was a mistake. They need to only have control over one aspect of the project: the cinematography. By eliminating their need to come up with a story, I can grade them only on how they shoot it. At the moment I only have two screenplays for them to choose from, but eventually I'll try to have four.

4. Shot Lists
When they choose which screenplay to work with, they have to come up with a shot list. They write down every shot they're going to do. This might be the single best addition to the unit to improve the students' work. Rather than winging it, which results in medium, shoulder-height POV shots, they have to gather in their group and think of how they could shoot each part to help the story.

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