There is a myth that you have to know all about camera lenses and exposures before you can be a great director and it’s simply not true. There is no need to be intimidated by the technical side of directing. You may do your best directing without even knowing what a 50 mm is.
Personally, I directed my most visually distinctive movies before I could choose a camera lens. I did it by being able to communicate the look and feel I wanted for the overall look of the movie and then the look and feel I wanted frame by frame. This takes a lot of thought, visualization and planning. The beauty of it is when you do this kind of planning and communicate it clearly, your cinematographer and production designer get charged up and inspired – the result is, you have a team behind you to capture your vision.
I never dictated to my cinematographers what lens to use and this gave them the freedom to be creative and excited. Giving definite parameters to Production Designers and then trusting them to carry it out, garnered incredible devotion to the vision. Some directors are afraid to allow a lot of creativity from their team, but the best work is done when there is a clear vision and everybody is inspired to contribute at their highest level to deliver that vision.
It seems that many new directors are either micro managing their team or almost completely hands off and there is no real feel to the finished product.
Below is a brief synopsis of how to get across the vision so everyone is inspired. I learned these valuable guidelines from my brilliant fellow director/teacher Bruce Block.
Know that everything in your frame says something to the audience. Your elements are: color, shape, composition of the frame, depth of field and movement of the camera and lighting. Examining these elements facilitates your decision making. You will be using artistic considerations to make your plans rather than choosing arbitrarily – perhaps Sears has blue paint on sale or your location has a smooth floor, so let’s dolly.
You control COLOR by limiting what colors are in the frame. Study art and define for yourself what various colors make you feel. (Personally, I love Picasso for color. I love exploring what his use of color makes me feel) Ask yourself, what do you want your audience to feel? As an example, I directed a drama/action feature called ‘Streets’ starring Christina Applegate. Not only was the color in each frame limited and controlled, but the overall color of the movie built in intensity. The story took place over a day in Venice, California. We used filters to create the look. The movie starts off pale yellow in the morning, the yellow gets stronger as the heat of the day builds. Gradually it goes amber as the sun filters through the smog. Late afternoon the sky is smeared with Orange – you get the idea. I actually painted my script pages with watercolors so the production designer and cinematographer could refer to it throughout the shoot.
You also choose the SHAPES you want in the frame to convey a feeling. In horror, I tend to use sharp angles in the frame to convey a kind of edginess I want the audience to feel. For example, I directed a Vampire movie called Dance of The Damned. The Vampire’s house was all sharp angles and cool colors, while the young woman whom he kidnaps to experience the daytime through her, is warm colors and soft lines. It’s always a combination of edginess and soft curves throughout the movie. Soft curves can say something about a character or lull the audience into a sense of safety just before you throw them the next curve ball.
COMPOSITION vs. MOVEMENT of the camera. When you compose a shot like it’s a painting, you create a strong feeling and when you choose to keep the camera moving it’s quite a different feeling. Watch a few movies with the sound off just for camera movement and identify how it makes you feel.
DEPTH OF FIELD – also called focus range. Long lens have less depth of field and wide angle lenses will keep everything in focus. Of course, what is in focus is where the audience’s eye is drawn. The various lenses have feel to them. Again, watch a few movies with the sound off and try to guess what kind of lens was used, what feeling does a long lens (where parts of the frame are out of focus) create?
LIGHTING is a huge element in creating the feel of your movie. You can use lighting to say something about characters or the environment. It can be a literal as having a shady character lit with a greater ratio of dark to light on his or her face and the innocent character more fully lit. Ariel diffusion is also an option, so how soft you want your frame or how crystal clear makes an impact on the viewer as well.
Movies are a visual medium, but most of all they make us feel something, so getting to know how your visual elements make you feel is very empowering. It’s important to connect FEEL with EVERY SHOT you take.