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Video Maker's Journey Introduction

Beyond Basics:  start | story development | pre-production | responding to criticism | editing refinements | transferring cine film to video | pace

The Videomaker's Journey: part twenty-two
Beyond the Basics: Pre-Production.

Use the links in the text to move between sections.


4) How to plan a shooting script or shot list

5) How to evoke emotion in an audience

6) Manifestations of ghosts

7) Video shooting tricks

8) More tips on how to start a movie


Beyond the Basics has been specially written for those that wish to move on to improving their basic movie making. It started out with me looking at what I had to do to improve my own movies. I have previously described in detail in The Video Maker's Journey, part 14, how I draft a shooting script. Start by using my system, if you don't already have one, then move on to your own preferred methods.

A summary of the shot sizes

Refer to The Video Maker's Journey, part 7 for illustrations.

BCU big close up (chin to forehead) Close-up image of a lens.

CU close up (from shoulders up to above the head)

MCU medium close up (from the elbows and breasts and up to above the head)

MS medium shot (from just below the waist and up to above the head)

MLS medium long shot (from above the knees and up to above the head).

LS long shot (contains the full height of a person).

VLS very long shot (a wider angle shot with more background).

OTS over the shoulder

Planning the shot list

One of the most important things to remember is keep your mind on how you are going to record good quality dialogue.

If the actors are speaking, have them speak while they are standing still and close to the microphone. This makes it easy for a home movie maker to record quality audio. If the background noise is very quiet -- and if you are desperate - you can take the shot, while they walk and talk, even if the actors are up to 5 metres away, with a good quality microphone in a video camera or an external microphone on a boom that is held clear of the shot.

The first movie I wrote and directed with actors from the repertory theatre was The Problem with Harry There were 7 actors. This story contains most of the elements listed in "item 1, script writing." The shot list shown below is taken from the one I used to shoot that movie.

The book, Moviemakers' Master Class by Laurent Tirrard includes an interview with Woody Allen, who advised that with comedy, you need to use more open frames and don't cut too often.

Reaction shots, cut-a-ways and insert shots

Reactions One system is to take each shot as listed - then take reaction shots as MCU's or as CU's - with the actor looking in the appropriate direction and showing happy, sad, in despair, anger, anticipation, head shaking or nodding expressions as appropriate to the scene.

There is another and better way to get these shots. When taking a shot have the off-screen actors, say the previous and following dialogue. This motivates the on-screen actors, to act before they speak and also keeps them acting after they speak. It also gets reaction shots of the on-screen actor with the video camera recording all of it. I call this the "overlapped shooting system", refer to details below.

Insert shots An insert shot is usually a CU showing an important detail of a scene. When taking travel, holiday and family shots - after each shot, always look around for cut-a-ways and insert shots.
Overlapped shooting system The "overlapped shooting" system is fully described in "the video maker's journey, part 15 the crew", refer to "the lined script". This shooting system will provide heaps of reaction shots.

The Filmmakers Handbook by Steven Archer and Edward Pincus also describes the lined script on page 242. This book says the script is normally marked during the shoot. Obviously the taking of the shots in this manner is a widespread practice, but it is rarely described in books on movie making.

Tthis system has probably been given many names . I have called it "the overlapped shooting system" and I will use this name until I see a better one.

This system easily provides a huge amount of reaction shots in a short space of time. It can also easily, and quickly provide a lot of cover shots if that is what you are after - eg., once the video camera has been set up to take a CU of the on screen actor and the sequence has been recorded - and you then want cover shots, set the video camera to take MS's. You can now record the on screen actor framed in Medium Shot.

An explanation of "to cover the shots"

To "cover the shot" - means take the shot from various angles using various types of shots (i.e. CU - MS- LS) from each angle. Partially "covering the shot" by only taking one or two extra shots is a normal practice by some movie makers.

Other comments

There are several ways to start a movie, refer to "item 8 starting a movie".

So as to keep this section as uncluttered as possible - detailed descriptions of various shooting processes are shown in items 7, 8 and 10.

Happy Stories - comedy - open shots (Woody Allen) - give the actors room to move, more MS's - less CU's.

Stress - close shots - more CU's - less MS's - confined spaces.

Visit the location

Measure the site. If you cannot measure accurately, make a sketch, guess the measurements and note them on the sketch. Later on you can then draw a plan that is approximately to scale, if you need it. Take photos with a digital camera.

Some dramatic backgrounds and shots to look out for:

Drafting the shot list

Look carefully at how the first few shots will introduce the movie. Look at the video clips in "item 8, more tips on how to start a movie".

Alternatives are:

  1. Start with an establishing shot. A LS establishes the scene, then follow this with a MS as you move on to a series of CU's.
  2. Start with a theme, followed by the title. The title is shown on a black background, this separates the theme from the story.
  3. The setup and the mood is gradually revealed, shot by shot. There is no establishing shot. A series of shots gradually establishes the scene.

Try to grab the attention of the audience, with the first shot or the opening shots. Then keep up the momentum by putting in the time to make a careful selection of the type of shots you use in the rest of the shooting script.

Download the annotated script as a pdf - click here. (Note the pages are numbered 4-11.)

The pdf file has the annotated script for The Problem with Harry which we suggest you download and print so that you can keep an eye on it as you watch the film. Comments labeled as notes (in "Lucida handwriting" font) are my thoughts on writing this example shooting script. They are not usually written on the shooting scripts I use. Here is a picture of part of the script as an example:

Illustration of the script page.


Keep a list of movies as a reminder

I have never seen any books or articles that provide advice on how to arouse emotion in a movie audience. There is a movie director in the USA who carries a list of movies in his pocket. Reading this list reminds him of various elements in those movies, such as how to create an emotional effect on the audience and other techniques that are useful. I too have such a list, there are only a few on it at the moment.

It is normally only necessary to have the name of the movie on the list, but I have added a synopsis here to indicate why each film is important to me:

(a) Still from the film.15 Amore (Directed by Maurice Murphy, Australia 1998)

Kindness encourages good friendships.

This is a good example of a low budget film about life on an Australian farm during WW2. The husband is away fighting in the war. The wife Dorothy (Lisa Hensley), with three children and two Italian POW’s, Alfredo (Steve Bastoni) and Joseph (Domenic Galati), work the farm. Playing tennis is the centre of the social life and recreation.

Two refugees, mother and daughter, arrive. The daughter, Rachel, and Joseph have an affair. Dorothy and Alfredo have a happy friendship, which stops just short of flirting, Dorothy does not encourage him.

The story demonstrates the warm friendly attitude that southern Europeans have to life.

(b) Still from the film.The Dreamlife of Angels (Erick Zonca, France1998)

Young people must face the world with consideration for others.

This is a story of two young women. One finds happiness in helping others, then moving on without receiving any reward or friendship in return. The other is an unhappy person who fails in life.

Isa (Elodie Bouchez) is the happy one, she arrives in Lille, she is a drifter, never settles down. She meets another young lady, Marie (Natacha Regnier). They both work in a garment factory. They have a nasty confrontation with two bouncers at a night club. This situation combined with prolonged close-ups of industrial sewing machines at the factory, showing them to be potentially dangerous to fingers - evokes severe tension in the audience. Marie is unsociable, Isa tries to help her, but Marie cannot adapt to a happy life. The club bouncers, when away from the night club, turn out to be nice guys, they become friends with the girls.

Isa and Marie live in a house owned by a fifteen year old girl, who lies in a coma in a hospital. She was in a car accident that killed her parents. The girl’s relatives are waiting impatiently for the girl to die, so they can sell the house. Isa visits the child in the coma and reads the child’s diary to her. The child starts to recover - Isa has done her work, she leaves and moves on.

(c) Still from the film.The Shipping News (Lasse Hallstrom, USA 2001)

A born loser finds happiness and hope for the future.

This is the life story of a man, Quoyle (Kevin Spacey), who had a miserable childhood - his father was a mean, nasty piece of work. Quoyle never succeeds in life, he is a failure. He meets with a woman, Petal (Cate Blanchett), who is bad news. Quoyle cannot see this and marries her. They have child ,who is a darling little girl. Petal leaves and takes the child with her and sells her. Quoyle, gets his daughter back, but his life is at a very low ebb. His Aunt Agnes (Dame Judy Dench) turns up and they both go back to Newfoundland, their home country, to restart their lives.

Now their relatives and friends at Newfoundland are very rough and ready and they play hard, but some people there take Quoyle under their wing and help him to succeed. When Quoyle finally succeeds in his new job, it is a very emotional moment. In the mean time, Quoyle meets a widow, Wavy (Julianne Moore), who has a little boy. Quoyle has a happy new life.

(d) Still from the film.The Straight Story (David Lynch, France/UK/USA 1999)

This is a true story. Intolerance leads to isolation - sacrifice is necessary for a happy resolution.

A crabby old man, Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), takes a long difficult journey, 300 miles, traveling in a hard way so as to make amends and restore the friendship with his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton), who he hasn’t seen for ten years, since they had an argument.

Lyle has just had a stroke. Alvin has poor eyesight, he has lost his driver’s licence. So he makes a trailer, in which to store his provisions, then he hitches the trailer to his ride-on mower. He sets forth, the mower breaks down, so he buys a 1966 John Deer Lawn Tractor. He drives at 5 mph on the road shoulder and camps by the side of the road in the adjacent fields. He refuses an offer from someone to place his gear on a truck so as to transport him the rest of the way. He is determined to do it the hard way. There were numerous problems on the journey. There is an emotional re-union.

(e) Generally, French movies finish at the end of the second Act - these usually end on a happy note - with hope for the future.

(f) Still from the film.You Can Count on Me (Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, USA 2000)

A useless life can lead to ruin - it is necessary to find an anchor in life.

This is a story of a brother and sister. The sister, Samantha (Laura Linney) is leading a satisfactory life, raising her eight year son, Rudy (Rory Culkin). The brother, Terry (Mark Ruffalo) is a hopeless drifter who is always in trouble. The brother becomes mates with her son. While he gets them into a bit of trouble with his sister, the brother finally seems to come to his senses.

It is possible he might have a useful future.


The following list will help a movie maker to select ghostly effects that are suitable for inclusion in a ghost movie - I once met a man who swears he was thrown across a room by a ghost. I read in the book I mention that someone was tipped out of a bed. If you believe what you read, ghosts can get physically violent. The book I mention has a story of how a ghost brought a murderer to justice, back in the convict days in Australia.

A few suggestions are listed - you can find more ideas by reading “The Ghost Guide to Australia” by Richard Davis. [Ed: this is now a hard book to find and copies sell for around $100 US. You may be lucky on eBay.]


Day Shooting for Night (Based on advice from Bill Rahmann, on how he did it with a film camera.)

Re-set the white balance in the video camera, to indoor or tungsten lights, so as to provide a blue cast for all the shots. Placing a blue filter in front of the video camera lens will also work.

Outdoor shots should be taken on a bright sunny day with no clouds. Adjust the manual exposure so as to get a dark picture. When you have got the dark picture to the level you like - then take care to make the picture a little brighter. This will compensate for when the TV or the video projector is set to a darker than standard setting, which will ruin the presentation of your movie. I have had this happen to me.

If you have an older video camera that has a wheel whereby you adjust the exposure, and you can use the eye piece to check the setting, you will find this to be easy enough. But if you have the latest type video camera where you have a menu system, you have a major problem. My little 3-chip Panasonic video camera has a menu system. I have to open the flip-out screen to get at the manual exposure controls, I cannot use the image on the flip-out screen to set the exposure to a dark setting. I have to place a black cloth over my head and the flip-out screen, to set the exposure, then close the screen so as to finally check the exposure in the eyepiece.

Indoor Shots. Turn off all the indoor lights, unless they are the cool fluorescent bulbs. Normally place a single light close alongside the video camera, if necessary, so as to eliminate unwanted shadows. This light should have a cool fluorescent bulb.

Rehearse this operation on a previous occasion before bringing actors onto the set. This is essential if you are shooting ghost scenes.

The Film Makers Handbook by Steven Ascher and Edward Pincus describes on pages 342 and 343 “Special Lighting Effects". There is one and a half pages on "Night for Night" and "Day for Night" shooting. It says you need added light to fine-tune some situations. There is a 20 minute period at sunrise and sunset (called the Magic Hour) but in my experience, I have found that unexpected problems and delays often show up to foil the best laid plans.

I have also noticed that if you use added light effectively, the cheaper video cameras will take very good shots. The expensive semi-professional video cameras will allow the manual exposure adjustment to take better pictures without the use of added light.

Shooting in the dark can be easy, provided you practice it beforehand. Check which way you have to turn the manual focus control to get infinity focus, then adjust. If you go to close focus first, it won’t work, you will be trapped in a permanent mess. The important thing is to get the lighting right.

I recently examined various night skies so as to refresh my memory on this. Having a very dark night sky in a movie is obviously preferable, but in a city the night sky is often far from dark. On a clear dark night I can now only see the brighter stars, because the city lights have concealed the lesser stars.

Low Level Cloud - the reflection from the city lights, lights up the cloud, we see a very dirty white sky, which is much brighter than the ground.

High Level Cloud - we have a very dark sky and no stars, the city lights don’t reach the clouds, or maybe we are looking at no clouds, with smog that concealed the stars and no wind to blow the smog away. I have been 30 miles across the bay in broad daylight, on a day with no wind, and I couldn’t see Brisbane, it was concealed by the smog. There may be a problem with my reasoning, but I think I have it correct.

The city lights provide a faint halo at the horizon creating a faint backlight effect. You can see the horizon, it is much brighter than the tree outline. This probably doesn’t happen in the country.

An alternative system that has been suggested to me

When faking it, you can try putting an ND (neutral density) filter on the camera to reduce the light input and holding a yellow card in front of the camera to set the white balance. That sometimes gives a gentler effect than a blue filter on the lens. The ND filter also reduces the depth of focus which makes it easier to concentrate the audience’s attention on your star. Where possible keep the sky out of any “day for night” shots. In reality, by day the sky is lighter than the ground, by night it is darker. Even with your filters etc. in place, it will still look lighter on film, so keep it out of the shot. If you cannot avoid sky - e.g. in a shot over the sea or a large lake - use a matte-box and a graduated filter which is almost black at the top and gets lighter at the bottom. If you need to show the moon and stars you really have to use the matte-box technique and add those celestial lights in the computer editing stage.

Shots to get a ghost into and out of a scene

The actors have to freeze, the ghost enters or leaves the scene, the actors then continue with the performance.

To make a ghost appear:

  1. The director calls out “FREEZE” to the actors.
  2. The ghost walks into the scene and takes up position. The director points to the ghost who starts to act and the director immediately calls out “ACTION”.

To make a ghost disappear:

  1. The director calls out “FREEZE” to the actors.
  2. The ghost walks out of the scene and the director then calls out “ACTION”.

In each ase the editor trims the shots, removes the director's voice and applies the cross-fades. For an example see Quick Time Video Clip QT9, (2 minutes) Extract from “Violets are Blue

Shots inside a stationary car

Face the car towards the sun - or use a cool fluorescent bulb in a reading lamp, so as to provide added light. By shooting through the appropriate open car door, you will easily get pairs of OTS (over-the-shoulder) shots.  Lock the focus if there are fence pickets or similar sharp edges in the background or the auto-focus may hunt back and forth.

Shots inside a moving car

With a park in the background, you may be able to use auto-focus and auto-exposure, but with houses and other buildings close by, you will probably have to lock the exposure and the focus. The changing scenery can play havoc with the settings.

Refer to video above of The Problem with Harry and the car chase at the end.



A theme followed by the title

The title separates the theme from the story.

New Beginnings. We see a bus take off, men crossing the road to join others walking up the hill in a dramatic fashion. They are seeking the light on the hill at a Community Men’s Shed. The Wild West Frontier. We see a steam engine, a cowboy with a gun on his hip, then the train moves off. This movie is about a train journey across the USA from Chicago, through Denver, over the Rocky Mountains, then through Los Vegas to Los Angeles.

Start with an establishing shot

1. Violets are Blue.

2. Good Bye Paddy.

3. The Problem with Harry. Refer to video clip above.

The setup and mood is gradually revealed shot by shot

There is no establishing shot. See Dressed to Kill.

Other examples I have seen

  1. We see a series of quick snaps - each about ¾ second long - of scenes from the movie and then the title is shown.
  2. We see a series of video clips from the past, or of action from the movie and then the title is shown.
  3. Superimposing the title on an image. This can distract the audience from the impact created by the images and so is not always good.
  4. Use a good simple font such as Lucida Handwriting. Don’t use fancy lettering and remember that when we read, we are quickly reading groups of letters recognised as syllables.
  5. The moviemaker must take care to plan the required shots.

Video Maker's Journey Introduction
Beyond Basics:  
start | story development | pre-production | responding to criticism | editing refinements | transferring cine film to video | pace

© copyright Arthur Bullock, 2010

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