January 22, 2009

Editing Moving Footage

By 'moving' I don't mean emotion, but camera movement.  Editing footage with camera moves adds an additional level of difficulty, but it also adds a level of interest to your film/video.  Just so we're clear on the terminology here's what I learned in school about the different types of camera moves:

Dolly- Moving the camera on a track (wheelchair, skateboard, car, etc).  This can be left or right or in and out.  A dolly left means the camera moves from the camera operator's right to his/her left.  Dolly right is the opposite.  A dolly in means a move closer to the subject.  Dolly out, farther away.

Pan- The camera moves, but the tripod is stationary.  Like turning your head side to side.  Pan left means move the lens toward the left, since the camera pivots in this move on a center point, the back of the camera would be moved toward the operator's right.  Pan right means moving the lens to the right, revealing whatever is on the operator's right in the scene.

Tilt- Raising or lowering the camera lens while the body of the camera is attached to the tripod.  So, a tilt up would be pointing the camera toward the floor and raising the lens up.  Tilt down is the opposite.  A great way to reveal something above or below an actor since it mimics the movement of tilting your head up or down.

Zoom- Changing the focal length of the lens.  This actually distorts the image.  Zooming in (getting a closer view of the subject) squeezes the depth of field.  Combining a zoom with the opposite dolly move (zoom in & dolly out or zoom out & dolly in) creates that weird, horror movie effect you've seen where a subject seems to stay stationary within the frame while the location (usually a hallway) grows longer or more compressed.

There are also advanced moves that can be created with specialized equipment.  A jib gives you the ability to move the camera up and down while also moving right and left or in and out or any combination of the above since the camera sits on the end of an arm that's attached to a tripod.  It can also be placed on a dolly track for ridiculously complex camera moves.

So, now that that's out of the way, what about cutting together footage that includes various moves?  Well, be careful.  It's safest, but of course less interesting, to keep the camera still or mix still shots in between moves but proper cutting together of movement can really elevate the quality of your film.  Here are some general rules, just remember this one thing about rules- Yes, they are made to be broken, but only once you've learned/mastered them.

1. Don't mix different types of moves.  Going from a dolly left to a zoom in will leave your viewers utterly confused and disoriented.  If disorientation is what you're going for you can try it, but be careful because this is a pretty strict rule.

2. Movement in the same direction shows progress, movement in opposite directions shows confusion.  This includes movement within the frame as well as camera movement.  If your character is moving from point A to point B then they should always be moving in the same general direction, left to right for example.  If you have two characters chasing each other and missing each other (think a Marx Brothers movie with people going in and out of doors) then having movement in opposing directions heightens the chaos.

3. Limit zooms.  Okay, this is just my rule and probably something that most editors have little control over but I prefer to move the camera, because as mentioned above zooms distort.  Also, zoom lenses have really deep depth of field that makes your footage look like video instead of film.  Why?  Because traditionally movie cameras had fixed focal length lenses, zoom lenses came into popular usage with television.  We naturally associate a fixed length lens that has limited depth of field with film because it's what we're used to seeing.  In fact, the director of "Wall-e" shot sample footage with film lenses to show the computer programmers how a real camera behaves so that they could program their virtual cameras to behave the same.  Watch it and see if you can notice the difference.

I think it's time for some examples.  I mentioned that I recently edited a silent short for someone.  Well, it also included a lot of movement.  The short is called "Skatebored" and the story is that a guy is riding his skateboard but then walks off and leaves the board behind.  The skateboard becomes bored and escapes.  It roams up and down while it's owner searches for it.  They meet up and there's a showdown but the board escapes again.  Eventually, it returns to it's owner who's so happy he takes off on a long, fast ride.  

There's a lot of movement in the footage.  In some parts the skateboard is used as a camera dolly, which provides some great POV.  Sometimes the camera is still and the skateboard is all that's moving.  The movement is in all different directions.  I used that movement to advantage since the skateboard in this film is supposed to be playing and enjoying it's freedom.  I mixed it up which enhances the playfulness and sense of uninhibited freedom.  Once the music that's being composed just for this film is added, it should only increase that feeling, but it starts with the editing.

Here's the middle section of the film.  Thanks to Traci Van Wyk for the okay to use this footage.

See how the skateboard starts off escaping the car toward the left, but then the camera (still in the same general position) shows it rolling away?  Keeping the camera in the same spot, with the car still visible to the right, lets the viewer place the action in space.  Therefore, the viewer isn't confused by the fact that the skateboard first moves to the left and then away from them.  An important point, confusion is not what we're going for here.  Also, having the skateboard move away from the camera is another way of silently expressing escape. 

Once free, the skateboard can roam about in any direction it wants and the audience follows along because they understand that this anthropomorphized toy is having fun and fun means random movement.  When the board meets up with it's owner and they have a cowboy showdown we dolly from left to right on the board and then the boarder (you can tell it's not a pan because the angle of the camera to the subject doesn't change).  This one could have worked with the dollies going in opposite directions but I like the smoothness of the camera continuing to move right, it's almost like it was a 180 degree pan with the middle cut out.  I think it feels better because the movement doesn't stop and reverse direction, it just keeps going.  There's a fluidity to it that's nice.

So, from this very simple example, you can see how editing can tell a story using movement alone.  Experiment with this in your own projects. 

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